CAL vs. ARIZONA: Run Game Preview

BERKELEY -- Arizona comes into Saturday's game as the second-best rushing attack in the Pac-12, led by hard-pounding Nick Wilson. So, how will Cal plug the gaps and slow down the Wildcats? Hardy Nickerson has an idea.

BERKELEY -- Before Nick Wilson ever got to Tucson, Arizona was a running team. The Wildcats had piled up 17 straight games of 100-yard rushers, with now-Chicago Bear Ka’Deem Carey accounting for 16 of those 17 games.

Enter: Wilson, who’s helped run that streak to 20. The freshman running back out of Fresno (Calif.) Central East – a one-time California recruit – has torn off three straight 100-yard games, breaking the 170-yard plateau in each of his past two games.

“The running back, the true freshman, he’s been playing like a fourth-year senior,” says MIKE linebacker Hardy Nickerson, Jr.. “He’s running the ball hard, downhill. They’re a dual-threat team. [Quarterback] Anu Solomon can run and throw, so we’re definitely going to have our hands full on Saturday.”

Wilson is second in the Pac-12 in total rushing yards, owns the second-most rushing touchdowns and has the second-highest yards-per-game average.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” says Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “We thought he was a good running back, he is a good running back, and if you go back and look at their stats, they’ve had a running back rush for over 100 yards in 12 consecutive games or 18 consecutive games. I just saw that stat the other day. It’s been a lot of different running backs. I think he’s a very good player, but I think it speaks to their offense just as much as it does to an individual.”

At 5-foot-10, 199 pounds, Wilson is the rare combination of speed and power, and on Saturday, the Golden Bears are going to have to try and stop him, and the second-best rushing attack in the league. That attack has produced 20 rushing plays of over 10 yards (Wilson owns eight of those) and seven rushes of 20 yards or more (of which Wilson owns four).

“If you watch their games, he’s three yards, four yards, three yards, four yards, 35. Three yards, four yards, three yards, four yards, 60,” says Bears linebackers coach Garret Chachere. “It’s only because you just mis-fit it enough. You just didn’t close that gap just enough … and a lot of times, the end or the linebacker or the safety thinks they have it taken care of, you try to get a hand on him, and gone. He’s gone.”

By far, the Wildcats rushing attack – and their offense in general – is the most explosive Cal has faced this year. Arizona is ranked by as the 32nd most explosive team in the nation, with explosive plays defined as a run of 12 yards or longer, or a pass of 20 yards or longer.

“It’s a spread, obviously, but they’re looking to run the ball first,” says Nickerson. “They want to out-physical us, so that’s their plan. We’ve watched it on film. They want to get line movement. They want to get guys through the A and B gaps, which is the middle of the defense. That’s their plan. They want to out-tough guys.”

That’s just fine for Nickerson, whose lips curled into a smirk when asked this week if he was up for the challenge.

“That’s a MIKE linebacker’s grin, right there,” he said. “We’re going to get a lot of action this game, instead of all the screens on the outside, running plays on the outside, stretches, all of that. I just know that they’re going to have to come through the A gap.”

That A-gap will be patrolled up front by Mustafa Jalil and Austin Clark, who sat out the Sacramento State game in order to rest his knee.

“My knee feels great. I needed last week to get right after Northwestern,” Clark says of the bye week. “It’s been a while since I’ve played that amount of plays, but I’m ready to go. My knee swelled up on me and I just was in a spot where I didn’t think it would be best for the team [if I played].”

Run fits will be paramount, given the way that Arizona blocks for the run.

“They’re going to have a main ball carrier, and they’re going to focus everything on him, and turn the blocking scheme such that, a lot of times in this kind of game, the idea is to make the quarterback carry the ball, but when they were at West Virginia, believe me, people weren’t trying to make the quarterback carry the ball, but they were doing blocking schemes to make sure the quarterback carried the ball,” says Chachere.

What complicates Arizona’s rushing scheme is that it’s similar to the triple-option, and that it reads the safety, as opposed to the defensive end, which throws a wrench into the secondary helping out in run support.

“Arizona’s deal is that, in the midst of run, they actually run pass routes, so they force us to cover,” says Cal defensive backs coach Greg Burns. “Once they start blocking, then we’ll be part of it, but if they’re running pass routes, we’ll have to do our assignments and stay on our guys.”

“They present a challenge like anybody who is running option-type football, or football in which the offense has many options on one play, and that is discipline – self-discipline – as a defense, technique and focus,” says Chachere. “Anybody can do it for five, six plays in a row, but if you lose focus for that seventh and eighth play, they get the explosive, big-yard plays in their passing game and explosive plays in the run, and now, they’ve got it going and they’re moving on down the field.”

The Bears are – even by Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez’s admission – much better on defense than they were last season, when Clark, Jalil, defensive end Brennan Scarlett and linebackers Nickerson, Nick Forbes and Nathan Broussard missed significant time. That defense ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense. With veterans Clark, Jalil, Scarlett and Nickerson back, not to mention safeties Stefan McClure and Avery Sebastian, the defense figures to be – and so far, has been – more assignment-sound.

“Sometimes, you can’t get it fixed until you come to the sideline, after they score a touchdown. Basically, it’s like any type of option football. They realize the adjustment you’re about to make when you go to the sideline, so they make another adjustment,” says Chachere. “It comes down to guys not being bored. They want to bore you to death, just run and run and then pop it on you. It’s focus, self-discipline and technique. They’re counting on the fact that you will lose that.

“They’re relying on the fact that you will slip up, and those coaches up in the box are saying, ‘OK, that safety’s eyes are in the wrong place … Oh, that linebacker’s starting to lean on the quarterback and not take the dive,’ and when they see that up top, that’s when they pop you.”

Similar in a sense to the tenets of the Bear Raid, the Wildcats’ offense wears down a defense to the point where they can capitalize on mistakes, though the two offensive philosophies come from different roots.

“They kind of came out of two different places, going back to the origins,” says Dykes. “If you look at Rich when he was a coordinator and kind of making a name for himself, as a coordinator, I think they were a spread-the-field-to-run team. That was their beginning. If you go back and you look at us, we were a spread-the-field-to-throw team. In some ways, the two paths have almost merged in the middle, but there are some pretty distinct differences, just in schemes, blocking schemes, pass protection schemes and route concepts, all that kind of stuff. To somebody who doesn’t watch that much football, maybe it’s similar, but they’re really kind of coming from two different places, but they do look similar.”

What makes the rushing attack – the second-best in the Pac-12 -- tick, though, is Wilson.

“We thought he was special when we recruited him,” says Rodriguez. “He was obviously very productive as a high school player, and kind of had a quiet confidence about him. The thing that’s been most pleasing for us is that we knew in the first two weeks of camp how quickly he was picking up the system, and not just in the run game, but in the pass game.”

Wilson showed early in fall camp that he’d be a worthy successor to Carey, which was a tall order, despite the fact that running back is the position that’s held to be the easiest for true freshmen to play early.

“He’s about what we thought he would be, physically, but we weren’t sure how quickly he could pick things up, mentally,” says Rodriguez. “With most freshmen, that’s usually the hindrance, particularly in pass protections and routes. For him, as I said, he’s picked it up very quickly. He’s certainly further ahead at this point than most freshmen would be.

“He’s got a lot of football smarts about him. Coach [Calvin] McGee, my running backs coach, has done a great job, and he’s way [more] advanced mentally than most true freshmen would be at that position, and I think that’s probably been the key to his success.”

The Wildcats are far from a one-back team, though. Arizona averages 268.3 yards per game on the ground, with more than 100 yards per contest coming from players other than Wilson.

“The thing you look at is they’re averaging 250 yards a game or 280 yards a game rushing, and they do a tremendous job, number one, blocking up front,” says Cal defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. “You’re looking at all senior and junior offensive linemen. Number two, he (Wilson) brings a load, on top of that. I just think that we’ve got to take care of the running game, and don’t give up the big pass.”

The Bears will also have to contend with the playmaking ability of freshman quarterback Solomon, who has rushed for 121 yards on 23 attempts, including three runs of at least 14 yards. Solomon and Wilson will put a lot of pressure on the interior

“It really does, and what it does with the quarterback’s run game ability, whether he’s running it or pulling it and going to throw it, everybody’s got to be assignment-sound, and that’s the biggest thing we’ve talked to our guys about: Be assignment-sound,” says Kaufman. “Everybody’s getting into a one-on-one battle.”

Many of Solomon’s runs have been out on the edge, which has been a point of emphasis this week in practice. When BearTerritory observed Tuesday’s open practice, the Bears were quite stout in sealing off the edge, thanks to Scarlett and defensive end Todd Barr.

The insertion of Jake Kearney at the WILL linebacker spot over Ray Davison, opposite of Jalen Jefferson, also gives Cal more size on the outside.

“This game,” says Chachere, “will be about who is going to be able to, in the fourth quarter, grind it out and win a tough one and deal with the other team getting big plays and being able to bounce back after a big play has been made on you, and keep on keeping on.” Top Stories