BERKELEY -- California spent its second straight day in pads on Wednesday, as the Bears focus on themselves headed into the home opener against Sacramento State on Saturday. That focus is particularly sharp on defense, as Cal let Northwestern claw back from a 21-0 deficit last Saturday, making the offense sweat a bit.
“The thing we’ve got to look at is, and we talk to our players about this, is, it’s all about us, taking care of our business and improving in areas where we’ve got to improve in,” said defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. “We did some good things in the game against Northwestern, but we’ve got a lot of improving to do, just on technique and communication. Those are things we’ve got to get cleaned up, and perform at a level that we expect to perform at.”
Perhaps the most glaring issues came in the defensive backfield, which, while only allowing 5.6 yards per passing attempt, did benefit from three key dropped balls in the second half that would have gone for first downs, extending promising Wildcats drives.
“I think the biggest thing is our individual technique stuff,” Kaufman said. “When we went into that game against Northwestern, we had one guy who had started at the position he was playing in the last two years (safety Michael Lowe). Anybody else that had played, we had six other guys who had played, but not at the same position. We had 15 guys who hadn’t played in 18 months.”
Among those was safety Stefan McClure, who, at least at first blush, blew coverage on the 54-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Siemian to Cameron Dickerson -- one of just five passes Siemian completed for 15 yards or more. Last season, the Bears allowed seven passes of 15 yards or more in their opener against Northwestern, including six of 19 yards or more. On Saturday, Cal allowed just two completions of 19 yards or more.
When asked how he’d grade his secondary, defensive backs coach Greg Burns smiled and blurted out, “Shocked,” before laughing.
“We did OK. [Deep breath] C+, B-,” Burns continued, citing the fact that there were three passes down the stretch in key situations that were dropped by Wildcats receivers, including a fourth-and-three pass to Dickerson on the first drive of the fourth quarter that would have gotten Northwestern across midfield and into Cal territory.
Dickerson also dropped a pass on first-and-10 at the Wildcats’ 48 on Northwestern’s final drive, a drive which was stopped by Jalen Jefferson’s sack and interception to seal the game on third down.
“It’s good that we got some kinks out. There were some things that we’ve got to clean up, for sure,” said Burns.
The pass against McClure, for instance, was a matter of miscommunication, according to Kaufman.
“As they motioned in, that was one of our communication things, where we had a bust in communication,” Kaufman said on Wednesday. “We didn’t have all the guys on the same page, so we had a breakdown in communication. The guy wound up free, and they hit him and we should have gotten him on the ground. He was in the middle of the field, and he was gone, before we knew it.”
In Kaufman’s estimation, that play wasn’t McClure’s responsibility.
“It wasn’t his to cover. It was kind of his to save, at that point in time,” Kaufman said of the appropriately-named safety. “That wasn’t his play, really, and although maybe he could have helped us out, it was more of a communication bust in another part. He was in there, he happened to be the guy that was closest to him, and it may have looked that way, but that wasn’t his play.
“The big thing that happens is, you’ve got miscommunications – nine guys are getting it, two guys aren’t – and those are the things that we’ve really worked on: Communication across the board with all 11 guys and individual technique stuff. That’s what we want to clean up.”
That said, the veteran McClure still takes responsibility.
“I could have done some things to just make it better, to take a better angle, be a little bit more patient instead of running up and getting frozen by the guys crossing and play a little deeper,” McClure said. “I could have been there, taken a better angle.”
On Saturday, Cal opens up the home portion of the schedule against Sacramento State, which battered Incarnate Word last week 49-13, with quarterback Garrett Safron going 17-for-25 for 251 yards and five touchdowns.
Last season, Safron set school records with 294 completions, 460 attempts, 3,289 yards and 27 passing touchdowns, while he also rushed for 492 yards and seven touchdowns on 142 attempts.
“One thing is, he’s got some mobility in him. He can extend a play,” Kaufman said. “The thing that they do is, they’ve got a nice run game package and a play-action game off of it, so it’ll be a different offense that we see, and some of the things, for me, is seeing what they do is one thing, but not knowing the personnel, you don’t know the match-ups until you get into the game.”
Both Kaufman and McClure made a point of saying that this Saturday will not so much be about the Hornets, but about the Bears, and what they have to work on. Following Saturday’s tilt, Cal has a bye week before facing Arizona, which will be looking ahead to Oregon.
“It is all about us,” McClure said. “Mainly, we’ve really got to work on communication and technique. If we communicate the calls and communicate with all our switches, all our adjustments and all that stuff, we’re going to need that down the road. You’ve got to work on that every single week, and just technique – besides being assignment-sound and running to the ball – that’s going to be the main thing. When we get guys running to the ball, that’s going to help out the defense a lot and make us look a lot faster.”
Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Cal last week was a lull – both offensively and defensively – that took hold of the Bears. Cal went 5-for-9 passing, and tallied 105 yards of total offense in the third quarter with just one touchdown to show for it, while Northwestern gained 109 yards and went 2-for-2 in the red zone, scoring two touchdowns.
“It was good to get off to a fast start, but it was also good for us to deal with a little bit of adversity,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “I think, in a lot of ways, it was just what we needed. Obviously, there’s a million things we’ve got to do better and improve on. Hopefully, we make a big jump. Everyone talks about the improvement from Week One to Week Two, and that’s going to be important for us this week, to really improve and get better, because there are a lot of different things we can get better at.”
This week, with Safron at the helm, the secondary will be tested in its ability to cover the quarterback scramble-and-throw, which will play a big part in three of the Bears’ next four games, against the Wildcats, Washington State and Washington, with Heisman-hopeful Brett Hundley and UCLA looming in Week Eight.
“They’re going to put the ball in the air,” McClure said of Sacramento State. “They’re going to push the ball vertical, so this is a game where everybody’s going to get tested, and everyone has to know how to keep their leverage. If you’re supposed to be inside, stay inside. If you’re supposed to stay outside, stay outside. That’s one of the things that we’re really going to have to focus on.”
One big plus for the defense on Saturday was the emergence of Griffin Piatt the former wide receiver, who took second reps at safety and came away with his first career pick.
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling,” Piatt said. “It got me some confidence at that position. Now, I’m feeling more comfortable out there, and I’m making my reads a little faster.”
Coaches have also shown more confidence in Piatt this week. Burns, in fact, wanted to play Piatt more, but he was shelved with cramping in the third and fourth quarters.
“He did well,” Burns said. “Unfortunately, he was suffering with cramps. He actually was supposed to get more playing time, but he lost it because he had some cramping issues. Basically, the third and fourth quarter. He only played, I think, in the second half, the only play he played was the very last play of the game, and he was part of the play that got made. We got an interception off of that.”
On Tuesday, Piatt continued to show strongly, making two picks against the scout team offense and coming up with three break-ups during the rest of practice.
Piatt also took first-team reps as Lowe was on light duty on Tuesday to recover from some dings and dents.
“Mike’s a little banged up, but he’ll be back, so I’m working in a little bit,” Piatt said. “Hopefully, I’ll be in the rotation.”
Piatt wants to continue his progression against the Hornets, and judging by how prolific Safron has been, he’ll get plenty of chances.
“We definitely can’t underestimate them,” Piatt said. “They’re a throwing team. They’re going to attack our seams in the middle of the field, where we haven’t really been tested yet, so we’re definitely going to embrace the challenge and prepare like it’s the best opponent on our schedule.
“You just kind of get used to the speed of the game after you’ve been on the game field. You feel the routes coming at you, and making those reads in a live game, it just helps you. It slows down everything else.”
Piatt will have some help on Saturday, as both safety Avery Sebastian and Darius White have both practiced in full this week, with Sebastian seeing first-team reps on Tuesday.
“He’s working himself back into it. My thought is, I expect him to keep improving and I expect him to play, but we’ll see,” Burns said. As for the rationale behind moving Sebastian up, even though he didn’t play on Saturday? “Just how the rotation worked,” Burns smiled coyly.
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