IN-DEPTH PREVIEW: Stopping the Air Raid
BERKELEY -- After the first four Colorado possessions of last week’s game, the California defense had given up eight touchdowns on their last nine drives faced. By the time the dust had settled from the 59-56 double-overtime thriller, the Bears (3-1, 1-1 in Pac-12) had given up 13 touchdowns in its last 22 drives faced.
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“Our confidence isn’t hurt at all,” said veteran safety Michael Lowe. “We pulled together as a team, through situations like that. It’s a team effort that helps us win, especially the Colorado game. I think that helped us pull together as a team, more than anything, and I’ve seen that, through the adversity that we’ve faced, you can come back as long as you stay focused, stay together and keep the faith in our team. I think our confidence, it actually helped us a little bit, in a way, by letting us learn our things early and learn from the mistakes that we made early, and be able to correct them towards the latter half of the season.”
Perhaps even more germane to this Saturday’s road contest against Washington State, and Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, Cal has surrendered a total of 975 passing yards over the past two games.
“We’re trying to get problems corrected from last week,” said Bears defensive coordinator Art Kaufman on Wednesday. “Their quarterback is the No. 1 quarterback in the league, and we’ll have a challenge in front of us.”
The Cougars’ Connor Halliday is the nation’s leading passer, with 2,318 yards already on the board. Halliday is also the No. 35 quarterback in the country in passer efficiency (149.7) and 19th in the country in completion percentage, behind the likes of Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, USC’s Cody Kessler, UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
“We’ve got to work our assignments and work our execution and technique, and that’s a big thing we’ve talked about with our guys, is knowing what to do, but more importantly, knowing how to do it and how to work on technique and do the little things, because that’s what makes plays for us,” Kaufman said.
Halliday has thrown the ball 299 times this year, 75 more times than Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty for the most attempts in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision. He’s also completed 201 balls – more than all but one quarterback of the top 50 in passer efficiency have even attempted.
“He’s had a game in the past where he’s thrown it 89 times, so we know he’s going to throw it over 70 times in the course of a game, according to their average,” Kaufman said. “You try to make sure that your players go back and look at the mistakes that they’ve made, and when you study your history of yourself, it’s easier for guys to understand, during the course of a game, things get heated and a lot of times, technique, when you’re young, you get to running around and trying to just do a job, and you don’t do the job the correct way.”
On Tuesday, head coach Sonny Dykes said that football games can be surprises, specifically citing how the Bears expected Arizona to rely on the run, and then saw the Wildcats throw the ball 73 times. Washington State throwing the ball more than 70 times a game, though, Dykes said, “is as close to a sure thing as you can get,” in the game of football.
“The big thing is, they’re going to get their yards,” Kaufman said. “It’s a matter of if you’re going to stop them, or if you’re going to try to control what they do. The thing we’ve got to do is make sure we manage what we can do to control those guys.”
It’s a foregone conclusion that the Cougars won’t be running the ball very much, instead using the inside screen game as a de facto rushing attack. If the very word “screen” makes you twitch, then, congratulations; you clearly remember last week’s screen-fest from the Colorado offense, and so do the Bears.
“They have a totally different passing game, but similar schematic thoughts,” said defensive backs coach Greg Burns. “They are going to try to force you to run sideline to sideline, but at the same time, their route concepts are going to be totally different from Colorado.”
Will that difference allow Burns and co. to fix the problems that have cropped up over the past two weeks?
“Oh yeah, oh yeah, it does,” Burns said. “It’s just understanding what they’re trying to do, getting ourselves in the right body position on concepts, and when you’re there, make a play.”
The starting two corners -- Cameron Walker and Cedric Dozier -- are young, with Walker a sophomore and Dozier a redshirt sophomore. The nickel back -- Darius Allensworth -- is a redshirt freshman. One of the starting safeties -- Griffin Piatt -- is playing in his first season of college ball, at a new position (though, to be fair, he leads the team with three interceptions and six pass breakups; after breaking his three-game pick streak, Burns told him that he has to get two on Saturday to make up for it). Make no mistake: This is a very, very young defensive backfield, and one that’s without veteran safety Stefan McClure.
“He’s day-to-day,” Kaufman said of McClure. “We’ll see where it goes from there. We prepare with him; we prepare without him. We always try to have a plan.”
That said, not having the veteran at the back of the defense, making up for whatever errors are made up front, stings.
“Stef is a big part of our team,” said Lowe. “He’s a leader. He’s an older guy. He has the experience there to help us out. Right now, not having him, we have to pick up the pieces as they lay. With Griffin Piatt stepping in, ready to play, I don’t think we really lost a beat. I think he’s stepped up and handled the job pretty well. Stef’s there, encouraging him, and talking on the sidelines, as he always does, and being a leader off the field. He’s still been helping us, as a presence with the defense.”
“Probably more than the experience – which is a factor – is the depth void that he left on the field,” Kaufman said of the impact of McClure’s absence. “He would have played 60, 70 snaps against Arizona. Consequently, those snaps went to Griffin Piatt, and that’s the one thing where you talk about developing depth, you’ve got to be able to do it, and we don’t have the luxury of having time. We’ve got to hurry and build depth as fast as we can.”
McClure’s absence hurts even more acutely when Cal has to go into nickel, further thinning cornerback depth with Allensworth on the field.
“That depends on who we’ve got playing that, and you’ve only got so many DBs, whether they’re nickel or safety or corner,” Kaufman said. “There’s only a limited number of them, and you’ve got to be able to have those guys. You lose one, and your depth is depleted.”
Having looked at the past game and a half, Cal has done few of the little things right in the secondary, but have also faced two of the best receivers in the conference in Cayleb Jones and Nelson Spruce the past two weeks.
“The big thing is, some of it could be the opponent doing some of it, and some of it is us doing things to ourselves,” Kaufman said. “That’s a thing that we’ve got to be able to correct. It doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes, the people that you play bring some things to the table that maybe hurt a little bit more, and the thing that we’ve got to be able to do is just continue to work and improve on ourselves.”
Four Washington State receivers are in the top 50 in the nation in receiving yards, and while no Cougar is the equal of Spruce – who, thanks to his 19 catches against the Bears on Saturday, has 694 already on the season – senior Isiah Myers has terrorized opposing defenses with 36 grabs for 478 yards and five touchdowns. Vince Mayle is 19th in the nation in receiving yards, having hauled in 40 balls for 440 yards and five scores.
“They throw the ball to everybody, and everybody’s getting it,” Kaufman said. “They spread it around. The thing we’ve got to do is, each person’s got to defend his part of the field or his 1/11 of the defense.”
One thing the Cal defense has done well over the first four games is halt the run. The Bears held the then-third-in-the-conference Arizona rushing attack to just 107 net yards, with Nick Wilson rushing 11 times for 35 yards before exiting with injury in the third quarter. Cal currently owns the third-best rushing defense in the conference (126.8), and that’s not by accident.
Frustratingly for Kaufman, that rush defense has not equated into a good pass rush.
“That’s something that we’ve got to be able to do, to increase,” said Kaufman. “Right now, I know that the best thing we’ve done for the most part has been fitting the run in run situations and that type of thing. We are very young in the defensive line, very inexperienced in the defensive line, and that’s part of where we get exposed in the pass rush, and that’s, again, like in the secondary, you improve your pass rush with technique and time.”
Outside of rush end Brennan Scarlett and defensive tackles Mustafa Jalil and Austin Clark, the depth chart gets very young, very quickly, as one goes down the list.
“There’s eight to 10 guys playing on that front, and there’s only three guys who have really played, and the playing time that they had, if I’m not mistaken, was 20 months ago,” Kaufman said. “They are now coming back off of being rusty, and that’s something we will continue it progress and grow through and get improved. Are we at the start of the season, great? No. It’s the starting point of where we are, and we’re not at the end of it. The big thing is development.”
How can the Bears shift gears from concentrating on something at which they’ve succeeded – run defense (which for this game, won’t be crucial, given the Cougars’ 52.2 yards per game on the ground) – to something which has been utterly lacking (but will be of paramount importance): pass defense?
“We’re always trying to manage the run, and then, you get the passing game tackled,” Kaufman said. “It’s just an emphasis on our guys understanding, hey, this week, we’re playing a team that throws it quite a bit, and two weeks ago, it was a run team, and those guys understand shifting gears week to week. Our job is to stop whatever the opponent is doing. The big thing is to manage ourselves and to complete ourselves. It’s something that has to do with the plan. We are inexperienced groups, so it takes time to be able to get that done, so we’ve got to be able to do that.”
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