Cal's Kenny Lawler and Jared Goff play perhaps their final game for Cal in the Armed Forces Bowl

FORT WORTH, Tex. -- From blitzing to man coverage to some good, old-fashioned swagger from Bryce Treggs, we break down the Air Force defense for the Armed Forces Bowl ...

MESSAGE BOARDS: Bowl Game Day Central

FORT WORTH, Tex. -- There's a moment in the comedy classic Blazing Saddles where one of the townsfolk bursts in to the office of Sherrif Bart, breathlessly exclaiming, "Sherrif, Mongo's back. He's tearing up the whole town. You've got to help us, please!"

For the Cal offense, Mongo is Kenny Lawler. He's back, and he's been tearing up the field in practice. After coming down with a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone against Oregon, landing hard on his right hip, Lawler was slowed by a deep bruise on his right buttocks for the final three games of the season, though he battled through the pain to lay a big block to spring Tre Watson for a touchdown against Oregon State, and he made another leaping grab in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, landing on that hip. He's been used sparingly, but now, he's healthy enough to knock out a horse.

"Kenny looks great," says quarterback Jared Goff. "It was ugly. It was black. It was a big old bruise, but he's full-speed now, and he looks good. He's excited to finally get out there and be healthy again." Lawler, a first-team All-Pac-12 receiver, has caught a team-high 47 balls for 583 yards this year, one of six Bears receivers with over 300 yards receiving, led by senior Bryce Treggs, who has 813 yards on 41 grabs, and, with 14 career touchdowns (six this season), is two away from passing his Cal Hall of Fame father Brian in yards, catches and touchdowns.

All three -- Goff, Lawler and Treggs -- could be gone after Tuesday's Armed Forces Bowl. Treggs, a senior, will graduate, and try his luck at the next level. Lawler, whispers behind the scenes have said, will likely enter the draft as a redshirt junior. Goff, while loathe to talk about the NFL, is also, sources say, almost certain to declare early. But, that's in the future. On Tuesday, the Bears could very well put on a show.

"Offensively, they're splendid," said Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun. "You see it repeatedly how well they get the ball down field, how well they get it out in space, how well they throw screens, and how well they'll sting you when they run the football, too."

Like Arizona State, the Falcons will try to blitz, though not nearly as often. Cal offensive line coach Brandon Jones said they're between 30% and 40% blitzing, while the Sun Devils were well over 60%, but he's prepared.

"They haven't played a 10-personnel team, other than Fresno State, so it'll be interesting," Jones said.

"We do that, we look at that, do the protections with the O-line, talk through that," Goff said, "and we changed some stuff this week, got the running backs on the same page with them, and got some good calls for some of the stuff they do," Goff said. "We're prepared for it."

Schematic tinkering has been what's helped the Bears' offensive line go from zero to hero over the final five weeks of the season.

Cal allowed just six sacks over the final five games, after giving up 20 over the previous seven, and allowed 16 tackles for loss over the final five games, compared to the 47 they gave up in the first seven games of the season.

"We just kind of came on and started playing better at the end of the year," head coach Sonny Dykes said. "We did some things, offensively, from a scheme standpoint, to help ourselves a little bit. The biggest thing is, we just played better football. Guys started playing with more confidence and more certainty. I look for that trend to continue into next year, and I think that that group has been a group we've had to piecemeal together in some ways, and have had to play with a lot of young players and some guys that were probably playing before they were ready. I think this year, at the end of the year, and I think going into next year, it's going to be a veteran group, and we think it's going to be one of the strengths of our football team."

That, says Jones, was due to a schematic shift.

"We've really been running three run plays," Jones said. "Everything else for me has been the same -- protection, identifying the MIKEs and all that stuff's been the same, but we've been playing faster, too. If you play fast, you get the defense on their heels, and they're so worried about you running the next play that the DCs are hesitant to dial up all thos blitzes, except Arizona State, obviously. If we're just set up front, I tell them, and I stress this quite a bit: You're going to see the most vanilla stuff ever, because they're so worried about your snapping."

It's also no coincidence that the statistical improvement happened as soon as the Bears plugged in Aaron Cochran as their everyday starter at left tackle. 

"Yeah, they've done a lot of good things, there's some chemistry and some consistency that's really helped," Jones said. "He's getting better. I didn't think he played exceptionally well versus Arizona State, but he's got this game to get better."

As far as the line as a whole, Jones attributes the success to simplicity.

"We've been doing a better job of keeping it simple," he said. "That's one of the things coach [Tony] Franklin emphasizes, is just simplicity. Then, just them coming together. By now, they know each other pretty well. Dom (Dominic Granado) has started every game, Jordan [Rigsbee] has started just about every game, Chris [Borrayo] has, so they've got some pretty good chemistry, and I haven't changed from week to week, so it's the same thing we were doing against San Diego State, so now, they're just starting to mesh." Air Force averages 7.00 tackles for loss per game (32nd in the nation), and is 19th in the nation in sacks per game (2.77), with 0.10 sacks per opponent passing attempt (third), in large part thanks to Alex Hansen. Hansen -- who is second in the NCAA in terms of active career leaders in blocked kicks, with five -- is third on the Falcons and tops among Air Force defensive linemen in tackles, with 64. He leads the team in sacks with 15.5 and tackles for loss with 36.5. He's a first-team All-Mountain West defender, and has had at least one tackle for loss in 11 straight games, and 12 of 13 this season.

"They're really aggressive," Jones said. "They play hard. That's obviously what all the academies are known for. They run zero-blitzes quite a bit, and we've just got to be sound in our protection. The tackles for loss, we've just got to keep everything simple, and just try to be on the same page in the run game."

Though the Bears will not have the services of senior Daniel Lasco at running back (Dykes said he will get in on special teams) due to a lingering injury, Cal is not devoid of talent at the running back spot, with Watson averaging 90.3 yards per game over the last three.

The Falcons are 23rd in fewest passing yards allowed (190.38 ypg), fifth in passing completions allowed (13.85 cpg), ninth in fewest rushing first downs allowed (6.23 per game), ninth in lowest completion percentage allowed (51%) and second in fewest offensive plays allowed (61.46), and are armed with two First-Team All-Mountain West defensive backs in junior corner Ronald Ladipo (and junior safety Weston Steelhammer.

"They have all-conference guys, but they haven't had to cover a Kenny Lawler, or a Bryce Treggs, or a Trevor Davis or any of our top six receivers," Treggs said. "We don't really look at that kind of stuff. We're going to go out there and play our game. We see that they play a lot of man coverage, and that's what we've been getting the past few weeks, and I think we've taken advantage of it, so we hope that they play that again." There were, though, three weeks, during the Bears' four-game losing streak, where they could not defeat press-man coverage.

"It was getting used to it, because we've always seen a lot of zone," Treggs said. "It was an adjustment period, and we had some injuries -- Kenny with his glute, I've had a foot injury basically all season (it's killing me) -- but we're going to go out there and grind, use our technique, use our athletic ability, and we're going to make plays."

Air Force will take away short and intermediate routes, and will take the chance that the deep routes aren't high-percentage passes, but then again, with Goff, Lawler, Treggs, Davis and Maurice Harris, every pass down field is a high-percentage throw.

"Yeah, you see that on film. They play a lot of man coverage, and it's exciting to see," Goff said. "You want to see that. You get excited for it. We've got a lot of good receivers on our team, and they're excited for it, as well. It's a challenge for them, and people play man coverage, it's like, 'Who's going to step up?' They realize that, and I think they're excited for it, and ready to make some plays. Our receivers are so good, it's going to be tough for them to play man coverage the whole game, but that seems to me to be what they do a lot on film, so I don't know if they're going to change it." Top Stories