IN-DEPTH: Stopping the Run

With WILL linebacker Khairi Fortt out, the weight of stopping the vaunted Stanford running game falls in the laps of the interior defensive line. Who will be the point of the spear inside, and who could make a surprise appearance in the 116th Big Game? Find out inside.

BERKELEY -- On the defensive side of the ball, California will be without WILL linebacker Khairi Fortt for the third straight game, as he's been ruled out with a biceps strain.

"It hasn't improved like we'd hoped it would," said Bears head coach Sonny Dykes. "He's going to be out, as well. You hate to lose your leading receiver and your lead tackler, but it is what it is."

Having Fortt and his 64 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks on the bench will be a big blow to Cal's ability to stop the Cardinal's vaunted power running game, headed by a robust offensive line which has allowed just nine sacks all season – the fewest in the conference.

Stopping the Stanford rushing attack – which ranks 29th in the country and fourth in the conference with 205.5 yards per game and third in the league in yards per carry (4.9) – will likely fall on the interior of the Cal defensive line.

"They're the first-best running team in the country," said interior defensive line coach Barry Sacks. "They know what they're doing. They do it well. They've got the best offensive line in the Pac-12, and it shows. I really admire what they do."

Sacks's unit is razor thin at this point in the season, with only three players -- Deandre Coleman, Viliami Moala and Jacobi Hunter expected to be in the rotation.

"It's good, old-fashioned football," Sacks said. "I cut my teeth on this as a young man and player. As a coach, it's really kind of fun to see. It's fun to watch. It's fun to play against. It's one of those things that I think it's really good for football, to see this kind of offense do it this way again. We're kind of in a fireworks show, well, this isn't a fireworks show. This is real, live football, the way the forefathers invented it to be played. I think now, you go back to your fundamentals – playing with low pad level, striking and leverage, playing with pad control, keeping a good wide base, keeping your feet moving and being able to combat double teams."

Of the nine fifth-year seniors on the Cardinal roster, two are on the offensive line, and the same five offensive linemen have played in every game – save for Washington State, when left guard David Yankey missed and was replaced by sophomore Josh Garnett. Four of the starting five offensive linemen are seniors, with sophomore left tackle Andrus Peat being the only non-upperclassman.

"They're earth-movers," Sacks said. "They double-team the fat guys, so they're going to double team the three-techniques, they're going to double team the nose guards, they're going to double team the defensive ends as much as possible, so they're going to move that earth as much as possible. Everybody knows what's coming. They know what's coming, and I think oftentimes, they're pointing to exactly where they're going, saying, ‘Here we are, let's see if you can stop us.' They literally are saying, ‘We're going to run the ball right there.' Right at the A's and B's and C's. Sometimes things drain out and they'll run it right up the middle but it drains out into the C gaps. Here's another thing: You may be able to slow them down and you may be able to stop them, but they're going to keep chipping away. They know what they do. You can line up in a myriad of different ways, but it's running a power play, they put that in, Day One. Those things make them very successful in what they do."

Moala has come on very strong over the past four games, tallying 14 of his total 33 tackles on the season against Washington, USC, Arizona and Colorado.

"He's playing with great pad level," Sacks said. "The thing I think of, whether they can play in the League or not, I don't know. We know what we're here for. We have very good college football players, and we want to win. The ultimate goal is to win, to win here, at Cal. Yes, his progress and the way those young guys are playing is very promising, so with him, yeah, he's learning to play the game. When I first walked in, I don't know if he knew how to be a complete player. The transition is the how, the why of what we're doing, and seeing formations, seeing splits and seeing a good strike and pad level and having good control and seeing blocks and being able to play a blocker that way. That progress has been extremely good, and that's because he practices well."

Beyond Moala and Coleman, Hunter has been a pleasant surprise according to Sacks, with his 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.

"You don't really have a crystal ball when it comes to freshmen, and he had some very good points, and I thought, ‘This is a very good freshman, and he's going to have a real chance to play right away, depending on what happens,'" Sacks said. "Thankfully, he's come around, and that's really helped us a great deal, due to some attrition at the position – not necessarily injury, but attrition."

The fourth option will be a player who's just started practicing at defensive tackle this season, and even then, only intensively for the past several weeks – former offensive tackle Matt Williams.

"He's a ball to coach. A ball. He's ambitious, he's anxious, he wants to play. He loves every minute of it on defense," Sacks said. "To him, he's out there, scrimmaging right now. He's enjoying the game of football. He's learned a lot. From taking an offensive lineman and turning him into a defensive lineman, he gets it. If that ever does occur, I wouldn't be completely scared to death.

"I won't cross my fingers [if we have to use him]. Matthew's determined. He's wonderful to coach. Just a yessir, no sir, God, would he have been good to have for five years. All these guys would be fun to have for five years. I feel like, as far as the position's concerned, all of the sudden, things are starting to hit. That curve has hit, like you said with Moala – the learning curve has hit."

Unfortunately for Sacks and Williams, this will be the senior's final game in blue and gold – his last chance to contribute, with his only game coming last year against Southern Utah.

"It's interesting. The ultimate goal – and it feels terrible – is to win. Win. That's the goal. We have not, to this point, done that with anything," Sacks said. "That ultimate goal is to win, and great things happen to everybody after that. Win, put rings on your finger, and graduate. That's the goal: Win, put a ring on your finger and put a diploma in your hand. If we keep that learning curve going that way, we'll be OK."

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