Getting to know your opponent: CAL

BuffPlayBook Publisher James Bryant visited with Cal Publisher Ryan Gorcey swapped questions and answers about the Buffs and the Bears as Colorado plays host to Cal this Saturday.

James Bryant: What do most Bear fans think about Sonny Dykes? Did most fans believe he was the guy when hired and how do they feel now?

Ryan Gorcey: Obviously, there were a lot of Cal fans who wanted Mike MacIntyre for the job, but when Dykes was hired, he did a lot to change the culture of the program from one of exclusion to one of inclusion, from opening up practices in their entirety to the public and the media, to attending other campus sporting events as a coaching staff and bringing out the entire football team to basketball games. Until Dykes got here, there was a sense among the other coaches in the athletic department that football was holed up in its fortress on the hill, and would never be a part of the campus community, either in an administrative sense or otherwise.

Dykes has proven that notion outmoded. But, then the season started, and after a really eye-opening performance against Northwestern, the team has really struggled to put a cohesive game together, with the offense sputtering at times (particularly in the red zone, where the Bears are last in the league), the defense sputtering almost always (fans have taken great issue with Dykes's hiring of Andy Buh, who had only had defensive play-calling experience for two years at Nevada before taking the reins in Berkeley) and when both of those seemed to actually be working, ill-timed miscues on an otherwise very solid special teams unit. There has been a huge uproar now against Dykes, but it has nothing to do with him personally. Cal fans waited far too long to oust Jeff Tedford when the program was rotting from within (a BCS-low 44% graduation rate from 2003-2006), and now, they're very quick on the trigger, but many downplay that the defense has been crippled by injuries to just about every experienced starter, and that the offense is in the hands of an offensive line that has three freshman starters, in front of a freshman quarterback and a freshman tailback, with six freshmen starting on special teams. It's a young team, and that's largely because of injuries and huge recruiting holes over the past four years.

JB: Have you seen progress from this Cal team?

RG: The great thing about being able to see practice every day is that you do get to see the incremental improvements in guys like freshman safety Cameron Walker, who came in as a corner and was thrust into the free safety spot against Ohio State because of injuries in the defensive backfield. We also get to see the development of the rest of the youth on this team, of which there is no shortage. While the Bears' record may be 1-9, this team doesn't act or practice like a 1-9 team. Seeing just the fact that Cal doesn't quit at the end of games is a marked difference from last year's squad, and this coaching staff has also cracked down in the classroom, as players have the best team GPA in a spring semester in five years, and the best summer GPA in 10. There are plenty of reasons to like this team going forward, because all the youth that's been forced into service this year has improved a lot.

Let's take, as a case study, the offensive line. Before losing both starting center Chris Adcock and starting right guard (and backup center) Matt Cochran, the line averaged 3.5 sacks per game and 3.02 yards per carry. Once those two went down, the line allowed just 2.3 sacks per game, but the yards per carry went down to 2.57.

Since the line has been completely reshuffled, the Bears have averaged 2.33 sacks per game and 4.6 yards per carry – now, the best of both worlds.

Offensive line coach Zach Yenser said that you can hide certain weaknesses on a football team, but you can't hide weaknesses up front, and for the first two-thirds of the season, that was absolutely the case.

JB: What are the strengths of this team offensively and defensively?

RG: Defensively, there aren't any. This is the worst defense in the history of Cal football, and it's missing both its first- and second-string MIKE linebackers, its top backup linebacker (Nathan Broussard) has been out for the season, it will likely be missing its starting WILL linebacker, the two best defensive backs were both out for the season within the first three games, one top defensive end was kicked off the team, the other has not played a single down because of hand surgery, one defensive tackle left the team and another hasn't played a down due to knee surgery, while yet another defensive lineman (a JuCo transfer) hasn't played because of difficulties recovering from a knee surgery of his own.

Guys like Walker, cornerback Cedric Dozier and linebacker Jalen Jefferson have stepped up, big-time, but beyond them, it's slim pickings. Defensive tackle Viliami Moala is having a tremendous season, but you won't see him show up much in the stat sheet because he's an interior defensive lineman. He's a very, very stout run-stopper and gap-plugger, and he's really come into his own this year.

Offensively, Cal's passing attack has a ton of weapons, from freshman quarterback Jared Goff to three very speedy outside receivers in Bryce Treggs, Chris Harper and Kenny Lawler (who has five TD grabs in the past two games). The receiving corps is as deep as any unit in the Pac-12, and there's a ton of quality depth. 10 players have caught double-digit passes, led by 68 from Harper and 69 for Treggs. The biggest issue for the Bears has been the lack of a run game, and it hasn't been by design. The line frankly wasn't mature enough to run the ball well at the start of the year, and only after the reshuffling along the front has the run game shown any kind of pulse. Northwestern sold out to stop Brendan Bigelow and the run game, and in so doing, opened up the passing game for Goff and his receivers. That's happened less and less and less as the season's gone on, and the run game has proven itself pretty impotent. If the run game has finally started to catch its footing, there are some very solid backs that can be relied upon, primarily speedy freshman Khalfani Muhammad and hard-running redshirt sophomore Daniel Lasco.

JB: What will take for Cal to come away with a victory this weekend?

RG: A balanced attack. The run game has to come into its own, or, rather, keep coming into its own. That will take pressure off of Goff, let him work the ball downfield to Treggs and Harper and give him time to make his reads. This can be a very explosive offense when it can get rolling, as it has in practice this week. If the tempo can be maintained by both a consistent passing game and a viable run game, we might get a preview of what's to come next year, particularly against the second-worst defense in the league (and, yes, the Bears are the worst defense in the league, so seeing a continued improvement from the defensive secondary will also be a huge key).

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