Ever since he signed his National Letter of Intent, California defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil has been as talkative as a pile of rocks, publicly. He doesn’t have a Twitter or an Instagram account. He’s never taken the podium for a weekly press conference. He’s never spoken after games. He’s been a beard and a big body in the middle, and he’s been hobbling along the sidelines. This week, he ended his personal embargo.
“I think I wasn’t really satisfied with myself,” says Jalil, who sat out all of 2013 with a bum knee after playing in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2011 and in seven games in 2012. “I wasn’t ready to step up into the vocal leadership role, as I should have. I think now is a great time to step into that role, and really express how the team is feeling and how I’m feeling. As an older guy on the team, I can get my voice across to teammates and to everybody else.”
There is, of course, no time like the present, what with the absence the past three weeks of defensive end Brennan Scarlett -- Jalil’s recruiting classmate. Scarlett started the first five games before going down with a knee sprain, and his future this season is still uncertain, according to head coach Sonny Dykes.
“We don’t know yet,” Dykes said, when asked if Scarlett would be available this week. “We should hopefully know something this week. I would think by the middle of the week.”
His absence has been keenly felt, as, over those three games, the Bears have gotten just three sacks, after recording eight over the first five games.
“That’s a huge loss, as a friend, and as a teammate,” Jalil says. “We’ve got a lot of guys that stepped up last game, that are going to help us out these last four games.”
One of those youngsters who’ve stepped up has been JuCo transfer Jonathan Johnson, who’s seen significant action over the past two games, along with freshman Noah Westerfield.
“He’s done a nice job improving, and has gotten much more consistent,” says Dykes of Johnson. “He’s like a lot of newcomers to the program. It took him a while to figure everything out, and is becoming a guy that we can count on to consistently do the right thing. I think he’s really improved that way, and he’s a really good athlete. He can give us some pass rush and some athleticism. I think as he learns and continues to get better at his technique, fundamentals and assignments, he’ll have a bigger and bigger role every week, hopefully.”
Dykes says that it was “a little bit of everything” that slowed down Johnson’s development after he enrolled early last spring, including the speed of the game, being assignment-sound and learning more advanced techniques.
“I think the biggest thing is that what we see every week is just a different challenge defensively,” Dykes says. “Players have some experience can adjust to playing different styles of offense. Sometimes, you’re going to play an offense that’s going to be a lot of quarterback run game, and you have to play the defensive end position different than you play a pro-style offense, or if you’re playing a passing team. In this league, we see so many different styles, that it can be pretty dramatic from one week to the next week. Sometimes, it takes somebody a while to learn all the different techniques and styles. The last two weeks, he’s played well.”
Jalil, Westerfield and Johnson will have to step up this week on the road, when Cal takes on Oregon State in Corvallis, and with that, we turn to our three Keys to the Game.
PRESSURE Sean Mannion. The Oregon State veteran signal-caller had his worst performance of the season, going 14-for-30 passing with nary a single touchdown. The Beaver offensive line was fairly porous, allowing five sacks for 55 yards.
Last year, the Beavers were the fifth-best scoring offense in the conference, and were third in the Pac-12 in total offense, with 4,844 yards through the air (the most in the league). Since then, though, Oregon State has lost receiver Brandin Cooks (who led the Pac-12 last year in receptions and receiving yards with 1,730 on 128 catches).
This season, Oregon State is dead last in the conference in scoring offense (25.4 points per game) and is 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense (368.1 ypg).
“I think they lost some really good football players, and certainly, Brandin Cooks is a tough guy to replace,” says Dykes. “They’re a little bit different style of offense, maybe, than they were last year. A lot of things are similar, but they’re running the ball a little bit more. I think that’s what coaches do. They figure out what their strengths are going to be, and try to play to their strengths and play away from their weaknesses. They’re an offensive football team that throws it well. Mannion can throw the football. I think he’s proven that he can do that and be very productive. I think they’re trying to get the run game going, too.”
With Scarlett down, Cal has struggled to get a consistent pass rush, and Jalil says that that’s on the interior of the line as much as it is on the ends.
“When you’re not playing well, it’s always a combination,” says Dykes. “If you have a great pass rush, it covers up some of your deficiencies, and if you don’t, it certainly exposes those guys back there, so it’s a little bit of both, right now. Unfortunately, our rush hasn’t been great, and I think it’s forced our guys to hold up, coverage-wise, and we haven’t been able to do it very well. We’ve got to figure out a way to get better at both.”
One of the reasons that the Bears have struggled in pass defense (allowing 383.5 yards per game through the air and a league-worst 31 passing touchdowns) has been lack of pressure up front, and though Cal has eight interceptions – second in the Pac-12 – three of those are on the bench in injured safety Griffin Piatt.
“This is a team game,” says Jalil. “If we can get a pass rush, the quarterback’s not going to have as much time to set his feet, and that’s going to help the cornerbacks out, just like when the cornerbacks do really good in zone coverage, that helps us get those sacks that we have gotten. As a whole team, getting sacks and incomplete passes, everyone’s tied in to each other. If we’re not getting the pressure, we’re leaving the DBs out to dry, and if they’re having their troubles, it’s hard to help us get the sacks. We’ve got to come back this week and work as a whole team, so we can help each other get some interceptions and sacks.”
As for those sacks, the Beavers offensive line has allowed 23 on the season, the second-most in the conference.
“We know that they’re really physical, and that their line is going to try to do a lot of stuff,” says Jalil. “We have to bring our work hats to practice, because we’re not overlooking anyone, especially if we’ve seen on film that they’re a really good team.”
WATCH THE TIGHT ENDS. Last week, Oregon’s inside receiver/tight end bodies hauled in four touchdown passes – two apiece by Pharaoh Brown and Dwayne Stanford. Those two combined for eight receptions for 133 yards.
Oregon State’s tight ends have piled up 37 catches for 412 yards, with Connor Hamlett leading the charge with 22 grabs for 243 yards and a touchdown as the Beavers’ second-leading receiver. Caleb Smith has 13 catches for 156 yards, as Oregon State’s sixth-most prolific receiver. Former Cal tight end Jacob Wark has just one catch for four yards, though he’s seen action in all seven games as a true blocking tight end.
“They have a good scheme. They don’t do a lot, but they’re going to put players in position to have a chance to be successful,” says Dykes. “I haven’t seen them play a whole lot. I’m still kind of getting into the tape, but I don’t think [Wark] has played a whole lot of snaps. They’ve got some other good ones that I think have played more. They do a good job using their tight ends. It’s kind of a pro-style offense, and they play a lot of different tight ends. There are for or five guys that have played that position. They have a lot of tight end-type bodies, and they throw it to them some, and those guys have been pretty productive catching it. That’s a big part of their offense every year, is to involve the tight ends, so we’re going to need to do a good job of getting those guys covered up. They do it much differently than Oregon did. Oregon’s a different animal when it comes to their guys and how they use them. We’re going to have to do a better job of covering those guys than we did.”
HIT THAT BIG PLAY, AND HIT IT OFTEN. Stanford’s offense is decidedly one of the least explosive in the nation, ranking 88th in the nation according to KnowHuddle.com. Yet, the Cardinal hit passes of 42 and 37 yards, a quarterback run of 37 yards for touchdowns. Stanford had four rushes of over 12 yards and five passes of over 20 on Saturday.
This season, the Bears rank as the 12th most explosive offense in the nation, but over the past three games, Cal has only had 10 runs of 12 yards or more and eight passes of 20 yards or more. 11 of those 18 explosive plays came against Oregon last week – a season high for explosive plays for the Bears.
Those explosive plays came against the No. 11 overall defense in the conference, while Oregon State ranks second in the league in yards allowed per game (344.3). Still, that defense allowed Stanford – the third-worst offense in the league (382.6 ypg) -- to gain 438 yards on offense.
“They’re a team that plays hard. They’re well-coached, they line up right, they leverage the ball right, all the things you want to see defensively,” Dykes says. “I think their front really plays hard. They do a good job mixing pressure, and the corners are pretty good players. They make good, competitive plays on the football. They’ve been a defense that has created some turnovers, created a bunch against Utah and gave them a chance to win. They’re a typical Oregon State team.”