Kyle Kragen and Cal's Pass Rush Face Big Challenge in Utah

BERKELEY -- Cal's defense has been racking up turnovers and sacks, but Utah will be the Bears' biggest challenge yet ...

BERKELEY – On Tuesday, California head coach Sonny Dykes called the special teams of No. 5 Utah “exceptional.” While that’s certainly going to be where the Utes have the biggest advantage over the No. 22 Bears, the Rock vs. Hard Place, top-of-the-card slugfest will be up front.

This season, the Golden Bears (5-0, 2-0 in Pac-12) have 18 sacks – seventh in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and two more than Cal had all of last season.

The Utes (4-0, 1-0) offensive line has allowed just one sack, which is tied for third in the nation and leads the Pac-12.

Thanks to that kind of protection, Utah is eighth in the nation and third in the Pac-12 in pass completion percentage (70.8 percent, 80-of-113). Cal has gained 18 turnovers over five games, with 10 interceptions (the Bears gained 17 all of last season, with 12 interceptions and five fumble recoveries).

Utah has lost just four turnovers on the season, with just two interceptions.

Then again, Washington State quarterback Luke Falk had only been sacked four times in three games, and had only thrown one interception, so this Cal defense is used to doing the unpredictable.

"They have a different approach, offensively, than some of the teams we've faced,” says Dykes. “They stay ahead of the chains, do a good job on first and second down, haven't had to throw the ball a lot down field on third down. They've executed well and protected well. First down's going to be big in this ballgame. We've got to create turnovers. That's something we've done all year."

Of Cal’s 18 sacks, 4.0 have come in the last two games from one man alone – senior defensive end Kyle Kragen.

"He's playing fast,” says senior safety Stefan McClure, who had one sack and a fumble recovery that he returned 45 yards for a touchdown last week, earning him Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors. “He's always been really physical, so he's strong, he's physical and he's fast. He's really just doing what we expected him to do. He's out there, doing his job. When he's supposed to set the edge, he sets the edge, and he's making plays when they come to him, and he's winning his one-on-one match-ups. It's exciting to see all his work in the offseason, to get back strong after missing last year, being sick and stuff. It's good to see him come back and be strong and playing fast. It's exciting to see him making plays out there."

Last week, Cal primarily played with three down linemen, rushing three, and occasionally four against pass-heavy Washington, with a very small role for defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil. That role, Dykes said, will increase significantly this week, and for good reason.

Rushing three, without Jalil, is not a recipe to win against a balanced team like the Utes, which feature running back Devontae Booker, who’s rushed for 443 yards this season with four touchdowns, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. "They're very balanced across the board,” says McClure. “Even just watching film on them, trying to pick up tendencies, they do a good job of scouting themselves. They don't give away any tendencies, like, 'We like to run this play a lot.' They're balanced. They run screens to the left, screens to the right, they run different route concepts, so they're a very balanced team. You have to practice and prepare for a wide variety of things. They carry a lot of stuff that they can bring into a game, and they have great athletes. Booker is a good, solid running back, has good size, good speed."

Washington State was able to run all over the Bears after Falk was dropped three times in the first drive. The pass rush proved resilient – tallying 7.0 sacks -- but when Air Raid Washington State is able to pile up the rushing yards against you (with 10:24 left in the half, the Cougars had 36 rushing yards, taking out the sacks of Falk, while Cal had 12 on 10 carries), that’s a problem.

Dykes said on Sunday that Jalil will have a much larger role this week, and defensive end DeVante Wilson – who did not play due to a foot injury last week – was practicing in full on Tuesday, meaning the Bears are going to be able to bring to bear a fuller complement of weapons against a Utah offensive line that brings 52 career starts to the table, led by center Siaosi Aiono. Alono played and started 12 games at center last year, and allowed just one sack in 747 regular-season plays. He started eight games as a junior, and as a freshman in 2012, played in six games, including against the Bears.

"We've got to continue to play fast as a defense, and be in the right spots,” says McClure. “When guys are swarming to the ball, and guys are where they're supposed to be, taking away routes and filling the running lanes, then you have an opportunity to get two or three hats on the ball, and that's when guys can start ripping the ball out, punching it out, so we've just got to play fast, assignment sound and once we read our keys and know what we're doing, just fly to the ball fast and get 11 guys to the ball and then force some turnovers." Top Stories