BERKELEY -- Last season, the California defense ranked dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense. This year, the Bears are 122nd out of 125 teams – an improvement not exactly on-par with defensive coordinator Art Kaufman’s previous defensive turnaround jobs.
“I’m disappointed in where we are, right now, but it’s where we are,” says Kaufman, a week after the Bears allowed 590 yards of offense against Oregon – a total that ranks just fourth in opposing offensive outputs Cal has allowed this season. “The biggest thing that I’m looking for with the guys is, are we getting any better at some of the things, and continuing the process, because we’ve got another match-up this week, so we’re pressing with a sense of urgency.
“We’ve not played like we need to play, and our expectations were much higher. We’ve got to get that improved, get that fixed.”
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That match-up is, of course, on the road against Oregon State, which, thanks to the youth and inexperience of its offensive line and the loss of all-world wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the NFL, is very much a different offense than the one Cal faced last season in Berkeley, where quarterback Sean Mannion completed 35-of-45 passes for 481 yards and four touchdowns with nary an interception. 232 of those yards, though, and 13 of those completions, came from Cooks.
“I think they had one of the best receivers in the country last year; I think the best receiver in the country,” says linebacker Michael Barton. “That’s going to hurt any program when they don’t have one of their best players back. They like to be physical at the beginning of the game. It looks like they want to run some power runs, try to get you physically, and then they want to open you up, after that, maybe put more guys in the box and they want to throw. Mannion’s a veteran guy. He’s been there for four years, and he knows what he’s doing with that rock. It’s going to be very important that we get to him early, rattle him in the pocket, and stop that run, because they’re a run-first team and they have a pro-style offense.”
In 2013, the Beavers had the best passing offense in a league that included the Bears and Washington State, averaging 372.6 yards per game through the air and 38 passing touchdowns – also best in the Pac-12. This year, Oregon State is ninth in the conference, averaging 255.0 yards per game through the air and, seven games in, having thrown only seven passing touchdowns.
“I understand that they had a really good receiver that was drafted, but I’m sure a lot of it is a change in the people around him, because when he’s on, he can really do it, and the thing we’ve got to do is respect the ability of what he can do, but what I think the big key is having all their shifts and motions that try to get you moving around, and get your eyes in the wrong place, and then they get you when you’re looking at the wrong thing,” says Kaufman.
But, as Cal saw last week with run-heavy Oregon, attacking the Bears’ weak secondary may be the order of the day, especially if there’s no appreciable pass rush without injured defensive end Brennan Scarlett, and especially if Avery Sebastian is unavailable, as looks to be the case.
“I think the big thing is, we’re giving up too many deep balls, too many big plays,” says Kaufman. “We’ve been hot-and-cold on third down. I don’t think they’re getting fooled so much as, sometimes, it may be out-athleted. Sometimes, it’s not so much fooled, but having their eyes in the wrong place and making mental mistakes before, or as, the ball is snapped.
“We press and press and try to get that cleaned up, and every day, we try to make a sense of urgency.”
That said, the players themselves do believe that they are improving on defense.
“Week-to-week, I think we’re making small improvements, which is all that matters, but with every team, problems arise, as well,” says Barton, Cal’s leading tackler. “We’ve been playing great offenses, back to back to back, so there’s always going to be some type of issues. As far as improvement, I think improvements have been there. I think, individually, players have been getting better, as well, not making the same mistakes. That’s what coach really emphasizes week-to-week: Don’t make the same mistakes from the week before; learn from your mistakes. I think that’s something we’ve been doing really well.”
One of those issues that reared its head last week was the fact that the Bears allowed 133 receiving yards and four touchdowns to inside receiver/tight end-type bodies, and, this week, the Beavers will attack with that exact same kind of receiver.
“We have to be physical at the point of attack, especially the outside linebackers,” says Barton. “We have to be able to handle those guys. That’s going to be all on us, the SAM’s and the WILL’s. We have to be able to dominate those guys at the line of scrimmage, if it’s a run, and being able to cover those guys in the flat if it’s a pass.”
Oregon State’s tight ends have 37 combined catches for 412 yards, but work mainly in blocking and pass protection, and teams that have been able to generate a solid pass rush have made the Beavers look ordinary, at best. The reasoning for that is that there’s been a lot of shuffling along the Oregon State offensive front, with even second-stringers going down with injuries over the course of the season.
Last week, the Beavers started three sophomores.
“I don’t know what we’ll take advantage of,” Kaufman says. “If we do our job in the game, and see how the matchups work out, hopefully, there’ll be some good things happening, thanks to good technique and matchups.”
If the Bears can’t generate a pass rush somehow, Mannion could very well sit back and pick apart the secondary.
“He’s very effective, when he’s got time in that pocket,” Kaufman says. “He’s a great pocket passer, a great pocket passer, and that’s the one thing we’ve got to be able to do, is there’ll be times when we’ll cover and there’ll be times when we’ll come after him, but we can’t give him all day, all the time.”
While Mannion is not as mobile as the quarterbacks Cal has seen thus far, he does have a career 64.7 completion percentage, and even without Cooks this season, he’s still completing 61.4% of his passes and is averaging 6.82 yards per attempt, though both of those numbers are career-lows, while his 23 sacks are two short of a career-high, with five games still to go.
“It reminds me a bit of, say, the preparation for Northwestern – a little bit more of a pro-style, non-option pocket guy, and it is a different thing than we’ve seen the last three or four weeks,” says Kaufman. “It’s not a spread offense. The quarterback of Washington State was a pocket guy, but it was a spread offense.”
This offense is as much of a novelty as offenses like the spread once were: A full-huddle, no-tempo downhill run-based attack. Yes, we will finally once again see that mystical, mythical, magical creature known as a huddle.
“It is a little bit different preparation this week,” says head coach Sonny Dykes. “They’re going to play with some tight ends, going to play with some fullbacks, different personnel packages. They utilize a lot of different things. Sometimes it’s three tight ends and two backs, sometimes it’s two tight ends and one back, and sometimes it’s 11 personnel. There’s a lot of different personnel packages that they’re capable of running, and when you play somebody who does that, that’s a tough preparation, because they can do a lot of different things offensively. Your run fits all change, depending on formation, and what they’re doing, so there is a lot of preparation work that goes into preparing for these guys.”
The matchups with Oregon State will come, Kaufman said, in the shifts and motions, instead of the athlete-on-athlete matchups the Bears have faced in recent weeks against UCLA and Oregon.
“The other thing is us adapting to not playing a spread offense,” says Kafuman. “We have to match routes and handle the power game, and that’s something that’s relatively old school, but to the guys that play against spread all the time, it’s a little bit different.”
Taking out FCS opponent Sacramento State, the offense that Cal has played the best against – thus far – was against pro-style Northwestern, but it’s been eight weeks since that game.
“65-70 percent of the game, they’re going to be in a two-wides offense, with an extra tight end, or two backs and a tight end, or two tights and a back,” Kaufman says.
Last week, safeties Michael Lowe and Stefan McClure took center stage as the leading tacklers on defense, and if Oregon State goes to the ground early, or hits the tight ends to take advantage of the mismatches they saw last week, they’ll run into the most veteran part of the Bears defense in the two starting safeties and the linebacking corps, which looks like it will have Jake Kearney, who was practicing this week despite coming off the field in the third quarter against the Ducks.
“They throw the ball to their tight ends,” Kaufman says. “I think one of their tight ends has 22 catches, so they spread the ball around to those guys.”
And, waiting for them will be Barton and Jalen Jefferson, the Bears’ fourth-leading tackler with 42 stops on the season, who has seen less action the past two weeks since Cal has been starting in nickel. With a pro-style offense on tap, the Bears will likely keep three linebackers on the field much of the time.
“They’ve been playing well,” Barton says. “I think we’ve been improving as a defense, and I think that’s the thing that I’m concerned about the most, and it’s got to all come together very soon.”