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Utah's veteran secondary caused a nightmare for Jared Goff in 2015, and all the principles return against Cal in 2016

BERKELEY -- Utah brings experience in the secondary, but there may be a soft underbelly on defense that the Cal offense can exploit against the Utes.

BERKELEY -- Utah's Rice Eccles Stadium was a house of horrors for Jared Goff in 2015. In the self-described worst game of his life, Goff threw five interceptions, and had a would-be game-tying touchdown pass batted down in the end zone on his final drive.

Current California quarterback Davis Webb has known Goff since the two competed against one another at the 2012 Elite 11 at Redondo Beach (Calif.) Redondo Union. They still text back and forth about once or twice a week. The one thing they don't talk about is that game. Hobbs, who batted down that pass in the final moments, returns, as do Dominique Hatfield (two picks of Goff, and the Utes' best all-around corner), four-year nickel starter Justin Thomas (who had one pick of Goff) and junior free safety Marcus Williams (who had one pick of Goff, returned for 18 yards).

"They play different coverages," head coach Sonny Dykes said. "They do a nice job of kind of keeping you off balance. They're not real predictable in what they play and when they play it. Sometimes you play against opponents that will run particular coverages in certain situations, and these guys do a good job of mixing it up and keeping you off balance."

This season, the Utes are third in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed on defense (15.8 ppg) and are third in the league in passing defense, allowing 182.3 yards per game through the air.

"You can tell that they've got a great continuity together," said offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. "They do a very good job at communicating. You can tell that they're very athletic, so a lot of teams try to motion and stack and bunch to try to get them start thinking and communicating, and those guys play very sound. You can tell they've been playing together for a while now. They can communicate all that out, and pass it off cleanly."

This season, the Utes have six interceptions in four games -- fourth in the Pac-12 -- and have recovered five fumbles, for a total of 11 turnovers. Last season, Utah piled up 22 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries.

"They've done a great job of forcing turnovers and getting to the quarterback with their great front," said Webb, who leads the nation in passing (1,837 yards) and is tied for the nation lead with 18 touchdown passes on the season. "They bring a lot of four- and five-man pressures, but they're very aggressive with those four- or five-man pressures. It might not be six or seven, but they're getting to the quarterback."

Defensive end Hunter Dimick leads the Pac-12 in sacks (5.0) and tackles for loss (7.0), with defensive tackle Pasoni Tasini coming in third with 4.5 tackles for loss and end Pita Taumoepenu checking in at eighth with 2.0 sacks. 

The Utes won't be nearly as exotic as San Diego State in their fronts -- the Aztecs do everything but ride a unicycle and juggle before the snap -- and while they won't blitz as much as Arizona State did last week, running backs coach Garret Chachere said the Bears will see zone blitzes.

"A little less now, and a little less than they did last year, but they're still moving," Chachere said. "That's the basis of their defense. With that being the basis of their defense, it's always there, and that's the thing you have to prepare for."

"They're going to give you a six-man box, play a bear front, and they really just get after you," said Bears offensive line coach Brandon Jones. "They don't do anything special. You're not pulling your hair out like you were against San Diego State. They're sound and they play hard, and you know exactly what you're going to get. You've got to just maximize our schemes, and all that stuff, and we know we've got to be 10 times more physical than we've been, in order to win this game."

Utah lost all three starting linebackers from last season including All-Pac-12 selections Gionni Paul and Jared Norris, and have switched to more of a 4-2-5 look with junior Sunia Tauteoli and sophomore Cody Barton manning the middle and rover backer positions.

"It's the way they play, in genera," Chachere said. "[Kyle Whittingham] has coached a lot of good defenses over the years, and they have a reputation of playing hard and getting after folks. This defense goes right along with that."

Tauteoli has registered 32 total tackles and 2.0 tackles for loss, and Barton notching 24 and 2.5, respectively.

"The linebackers are new, but the defensive line's pretty solid," Spavital said. "I think any game that you go into, you've got to establish the run game, and if you can establish the run game, I think that's going to take a lot of pressure off of Davis and allow him to manage the game a little bit more, instead of being one-dimensional, where you've seen at times where we've been one-dimensional, and that's hard on a quarterback. Davis handles it pretty well, but that's where we have to start forcing passes, and that's where the interceptions come around. I think, when you have a great run game, that's going to complement the passing game."

Because of the absence of defensive end Kylie Fitts and the likely limited availability of defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei, there will, by necessity, be some shifting around, positionally, as well as formationally. "The thing that I see what they do the best, is that they play very physical, and they're very sound," Spavital said. "They don't do very much -- they do about two or three things up front, and two to three things in the back end, but they play very hard, they play with great passion, and I think, because they play so hard they create so many turnovers. They're a physical group of guy, and you can tell that they're one of the top defenses in our conference."

Jones's line has allowed 11 sacks in four games -- 99th in the nation -- with three of those coming in the last two fourth quarters, over the left side. That's the side of Aaron Cochran, who, having just come off a sprained knee, saw his understudy, Patrick Mekari, go down with a rolled ankle, missing the last two games.

"That's my fault, as a coach, obviously," Jones said. "We'll continue to focus on the technical stuff, but that's part of the program. 90 snaps for Aaron and Steven [Moore], that's asking a lot of them ... The thing about them, they're good when they're fresh, but when they get tired, it shows up."

It shows up especially in the footwork of Cochran, who winds up looking like he did two years ago, instead of, as Jones said, "like a million bucks" when he's fresh, has his feet set, and his shoulders square.

If Utah does bring the blitz, they'll have an ace waiting for them in Webb. In 179 drop backs with no pressure, Webb has 14 touchdowns to five interceptions, completing 66.7% of his passes for a 106.8 NFL quarterback rating. In 57 plays under pressure, he's completing 44.7 percent of his passes, with four touchdowns to no picks, but 10 sacks taken. When he's not blitzed, he has an NFL QB rating of 82.7, with all five of his interceptions. However, when facing the blitz on 83 drop backs, he has 11 touchdowns, no picks and on sack, for a quarterback rating of 139.5. If the Utes blitz, the Bears could find an open middle of the field. Although Webb is now going to other receivers more frequently over the last two games, including Melquise StovallBrandon Singleton and Demetris Robertson, 36.2% of his passes on the season have still gone to Chad Hansen. Stovall has caught 11 balls over the last two games for 148 yards, compared to his 84 yards on six catches over the first two games. Robertson has caught five passes over the last two gams for 119 yards, and Singleton has three catches in his last two for 40 yards and one touchdown, compared to two catches for 14 yards over the first two games. The emergence of that trio has given Webb "a lot more freedom."

"It's not so much on my part," Spavital said. "There's more confidence in Davis going to other people. I think that's huge, because, obviously, there was a tendency to throw to Chad early, but you can see that Davis is opening up things, and spreading it around a little bit more."

If the Bears can establish the run, forcing a safety down into the box and leaving a single high safety over the top to deal with Robertson, Singleton and Hansen, that will open the middle for the likes of Stovall and Bug Rivera on screens and quick slants, but establishing the run has to be paramount.

Cal's Khalfani Muhammad rushed for 74 yards on nine carries in the first half, but only three for 10 in the second half against Arizona State, because of injury. In that first half, the Bears rushed for 134 yards as a team, averaging 6.7 yards per carry in the second quarter. Cal only managed 25 rushing yards after the break.

"Khalfani will be a wait-and-see," Chachere said. "He's made out of iron, so we fully expect him to play. We're also worrying about his health. We want to make sure that he's healthy out there. We'll just wait for the last possible moment. Something tells me that good things will work out for the Bears."

The Utes own the fourth best rushing defense in the Pac-12, holding opponents to an average of 132.8 yards per game, but before last week's win over USC, the Utes had held opposing teams to just 3.5 yards per carry, and during that game, it jumped to 6.5.

The Bears' rushing offense is 10th in the Pac-12, averaging 135.2 yards per game, and 4.0 yards per carry, in part because of the loss of Lotulelei, who played just the first half.

"They move a lot, have a lot of zone blitzes, and they move a lot, so I think it would be a bigger challenge to us," Chachere said. "It would be a bigger change for us if we hadn't played Hawaii and San Diego State. When you're still talking about line slants -- a line slant is a line slant -- and they move their backers up. Obviously, they have a heck of a front, they have a really good front, but as far as that goes, I think they would be good in any type of defense. They're that good. They're big and they're strong. Their scheme is a problem for offenses, with all the movement, so we have to work extra hard on them. But, they'll be the third team like that, that we've faced."

As Jones said, it'll be a game of toughness, and if Muhammad shrugs off his hit last week and leads the charge, Cal may have the recipe to win.

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