Key Match-Up: Cal Defense Prepares for Donnel Pumphrey and San Diego State

What match-up should you be watching this week as Cal takes on San Diego State?

BERKELEY – San Diego State’s offensive line is massive. Of the five starters, not one is under 300 pounds, with the lightest being right guard Robert Craighead (6-foot-3, 300), a redshirt senior who’s spent three years at tight end and one as a defensive linemen.

Craighead has had to take over for projected starter Darrell Greene, who was among the five players suspended for six games for “violating team rules” by Aztecs head coach Rocky Long in June.

That said, San Diego State still returns important experience at left guard in Nico Siragusa (6-foot-3, 335), and 6-foot-7, 335-pound right tackle Pearce Slater. Oh, and there's the small matter of do-everything running back Donnel Pumphrey, who gained over 2,000 all-purpose yards last season, and was a Sports Illustrated Honorable-Mention All-American, averaging 6.8 yards per carry and tearing off 20 touchdown runs.

“We’ll certainly know more about ourselves Saturday evening than we do right now,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes earlier this week.

Look for Devante Downs -- who had a pick-six on Saturday -- to play a big role in taking down star running back Pumphrey. He's athletic, quick and has really emerged as a potential elite linebacker for the Bears over the course of spring, fall and after Game One. The return of a now-healthy Nathan Broussard will also play a big factor, as the Aztecs utilize more two-wide receiver sets, so Cal won't be in nickel and dime nearly as much as we saw last week against Grambling, nor as much as we'll see them during the course of the season, facing spread teams in the Pac-12.

"Our defense, when you sit down and you say, ‘What’s your defense designed to stop?’ we’re a four-man front, so just by nature, we’re going to play with four defensive linemen," Dykes said. "We’re going to be a little bit bigger in there than some teams that are going to play with more of a three-man front. That, I think, suits their offense well, just having our personnel on the field. We have three linebackers, we can play with seven big bodies in the box, so that suits what we do fairly well.”

Defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil compared San Diego State's power running style of play – the Aztecs passed 168 fewer times than they ran last year – with a familiar Pac-12 foe.

“This is more of a Stanford-type game for us,” Jalil said. “For the front seven, we like that type of game. They’ll run the ball at us. You really can’t hide against a San Diego State or a Stanford-type of team, so they’re really going to show us what type of front seven we are.”

Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman agrees.“I would say that would be, of the teams we played last year, Stanford, Oregon State at times, and even BYU, but Stanford would be a very good comparison in terms of what those guys do, and what style of ball they are,” he said.

Jalil – who believes he had his best game of the year last season against BYU – is excited to get to a real test, following an abbreviated stint in Saturday’s 73-14 thrashing of Grambling State, where the starters were phased out early on.

Given that, it was tough to tell much about Cal’s run defense, which held the Tigers to just 127 yards on the ground. The Bears tallied 8.0 tackles for loss, including three sacks, but the defensive starters only played about three or four series.

Granted, that’s when most of the more gaudy defensive numbers – including the two pick-sixes – were recorded, but going against a powerful offensive line and a power-run offense like San Diego State’s, it’s tough to take much from that performance, other than the fact that both Jalil and James Looney were disruptive, as was the rest of the defensive line, down to the third-team set, save for a 90-yard touchdown run late in the game that both Jalil and Dykes cited as cause for at least some minor concern.

This bunch will be much, much tougher, despite the fact that the Aztecs scored just one offensive touchdown against FCS opponent San Diego.

“It’s just their scheme,” Dykes said. “Offensively, they’re big up front. They’re going to try to keep the ball away from you, limit the number of possessions you have in a ballgame, and try to knock you off the ball.”

San Diego State does that with a grinding, punishing running game, headed by Pumphrey, who ran for 1,867 yards last season.

“Their tailback’s very good, very productive,” said Dykes. “The offensive line is really big, really physical. They have good skill at the wide receiver position. Their quarterback has got a lot of talent.” is going to be used in a variety of ways, from fly sweeps to screens to being split out wide, which is why Cal has used a combination of two players – walking running back/receiver Alex Netherda and freshman running back Lonny Powell (arguably the best pass catcher among the Bears’ backs) to simulate what he will do on Saturday.

“They’re a big two-back team, which is a lot different than anything else we’ve seen,” Kaufman said. “They’re a power running team, their tailback has really good hands, and their offensive line is probably as big as we’ve seen. I think they’ve got one guy who weighs 300 pounds, and everybody else is over 300 pounds. They’re big, they’re physical, they’re a different style of ball than what we see a lot of, so it’s a matter of adjusting our defense and getting our guys to understand where they’ve got to be, and more importantly, the technique and the physicality of this ballgame.”

The Aztecs were “pretty vanilla” last week against the Toreros, and won 37-3, but there’s plenty of tape from last year, and Pumphrey’s 19-carry, 62-yard performance is far from indicative of how he’ll be used against the Bears.

“They didn’t show us much,” Dykes said. “I’m sure that was intentional. They got up early, and didn’t have to show much. It was a very workmanlike ballgame. When you play those kinds of teams, you have to be very precise in your execution on offense, because they’re going to try to limit the number of possessions you get. If you turn the ball over a couple of times, drop a couple balls here and there, all the sudden, you look up, and you haven’t scored many points. We’re going to need to really execute well, really take care of the football.

“Turnovers are always important, but more so when you play this type of team, than they are when you play another team that’s going fast, and it’s wide open, because you’re going to have a limited number of possessions. They have a formula that works very well, has worked well for a long time, and has resulted in them being very successful.”

At 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, Pumphrey is not the biggest back Cal will see, and neither is senior backup Chase Price, at 5-foot-8, 200 pounds, but it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, as it were, for Dykes.

“He looks bigger than that on film,” said the Bears’ third-year head coach. “He runs very physical. Great balance. Keeps his pads low, finishes runs, has good quickness when he gets in the open field, good speed. The thing that’s really probably the most impressive about him is that he consistently makes good decisions in the run game. He’s somebody that they’re obviously trying to get him the ball as much as they possibly can, and you can certainly see why.” Top Stories