Cal's defense isn't stellar, but it's not horrible either.
They have yet to really shut down anyone. They're more of a defense that has found its success by limiting opposing offenses just enough to allow its own offense to outscore the opponent.
Luckily the Cal offense has obliged.
Until last week, that is, against Oregon State.
It was a week when Cal couldn't rely on its offense to out-score their opponent, with its starting quarterback out, and needed more from its defense. And the defense didn't deliver. While OSU didn't run over Cal by any means they did score 31 points and gain 339 total yards.
And that was in Berkeley - against the same offense that, in Corvallis, UCLA's defense pretty much shut down.
The main issue for Cal defensively has been trying to replace three all-conference defensive players and seven starters total from last season. They've had just a so-so result in doing it.
They've really felt it on the defensive line, where they had to replace three starters, including one of the best defensive tackles in the country from last season, Brandon Mebane.
Matt Malele (SR, 6-1, 312) is the only returning starter, and he hasn't stood out much so far this season. Mika Kane (JR, 6-3, 305) stepped into the vacant DT spot and has played well, and had perhaps Cal's best defensive moment of the season when he batted away a Dennis Dixon pass to preserve Cal's win over Oregon earlier in the season. Cal has used its back-ups pretty extensively, gettting some solid minutes from both Cody Jones (SO, 6-5, 270) and Derrick Hill (FR, 6-3, 289). Hill, if you remember, was a big recruit and they expect him to be the next big thing at DT.
The two defensive ends are first-year starters and having their ups and downs. Tad Smith (SO, 6-6, 250) and Tyson Alualu (SO, 6-4, 288) had some playing experience coming in, but are now making the jump to starters, and sometimes making mistakes. There has been a knock that opposing running backs have had success turning the corner on Cal's defensive line. Also getting time there has been true freshman Cameron Jordan (6-4, 260). Out for the week with an sprained foot is Rulon Davis (JR, 6-5, 275), a good athlete Cal has been waiting to step up. They haven't, as a group, gotten a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and many Cal watchers point to that as one of the biggest reasons the Cal defense hasn't been dominant.
|Linebacker Zack Follett.|
Cal's D is designed, though, for its linebackers to make plays and get plenty of tackles, and that's what's been happening this season. It was expected that Zack Follett (JR, 6-2, 232), after a couple of seasons of being a super reserve, would blossom into a star, but so far he's had to sit out 2 ½ games with a neck stinger, and he could sit out at least some of the UCLA game. At the strongside spot, Follett has a rep for being a big hitter and causing a good share of fumbles. The Bears have gotten some good help from Justin Moye (SR, 6-1, 228) who stepped in admirably for Follett while he's been hurt. With Follett on the mend for a good portion of the season so far, the guy who has stepped into the void has been weakside linebacker Anthony Felder (JR, 6-4, 231). Felder leads the Pac-10 in tackles, with 62 total, averaging 10.3 per game. He was all over the field against Oregon State last week, and generally has been very disruptive to opposing offenses, causing fumbles and hurrying quarterbacks on blitzes. He was a freshman All-American two years ago but has been battling injuries since, until this season when he's been injury-free. The other starter is middle linebacker Worrell Williams (JR, 6-2, 243), who moved from the weakside spot a year ago, and has had a good year thus far, fourth in the league in tackles (59) and leading the team in tackles for loss (4.5). Williams has done well to make up for the loss of all-conference MLB Desmond Bishop a year ago.
It was thought the defensive secondary would be a bit shaky coming into the season, and it's lived up to that. It leaves a considerable hole in your defensive backfield when you lose a player of the caliber of Daymeion Hughes, an All-American at cornerback. Cal had a pretty stiff competition to replace him and the more experienced Brandon Hampton (SR, 5-10, 193) won the spot over probably the more talented but inexperienced Darian Hagan (FR, 6-1, 180), and Hampton has done fairly well, grabbing a couple of opportunistic and key interceptions this season. On the other side is returning starter Syd'Quan Thompson (SO, 5-11, 181), who has been good in run support, but somewhat suspect in coverage. Bernard Hicks (JR, 6-1, 202) is the returning starter at rover, with the new starter at free safety being Thomas DeCoud (SR, 6-3, 204) who has made the most of his opportunity. Back-up rover Marcus Ezeff (SO, 6-0, 194) is expected to return to action this week after suffering a strained quad, and should see some action.
Cal's passing defense hasn't been fantastic, but it still isn't as bad as you might think from just looking at stats. The Bears have had to face quite a few pass-oriented teams, and/or teams that have been trailing and passing the ball to try to come back, so the stats might be a little skewered.
UCLA's offense will have to bring a balanced attack to the Rose Bowl Saturday to be successful against Cal's defense. Patrick Cowan, recovering from a sprained knee, practiced this week and looked only marginally limited. This being only his second week of practice since fall camp, he hasn't, surprisingly, looked too rusty either. But you'd have to think that getting right back into it, after suffering the knee injury and a hamstring injury before that, and getting little practice, will have some impact on his effectiveness.
It's key that Cowan can find some UCLA receivers open, and the only guy who has been consistent in doing that so far this season has been Brandon Breazell. Senior Marcus Everett looks to be recovered from his injury and should possibly see more time Saturday, but overall the UCLA wide receivers, except for Breazell, have been vastly disappointing so far this season. Their inability to find some space has been one of the most least noticed - but prevalent - reasons UCLA's offense has struggled so far this year.
Advantage: Cal. It would have been a huge edge to Cal if Cowan weren't available, but, as stated above, even though he's going to play, you have to consider the two injuries and the rustiness that Cowan will have to overcome. Cal's defense, while it isn't stellar, it isn't bad, by any means. They've gotten a rep as being mediocre because, first, they're not a clamp-down, big-play defense that pressures the quarterback and, two, they've generally played against some pretty good offensive teams. Cal does, however, have some pretty good depth, and some decent talent, but just lacks experience overall on its defensive unit.
UCLA will have to run the ball (but, well, we said that two weeks ago in our preview of the Notre Dame game, so take this with a grain of salt). It could be the biggest indicator of the game, whether UCLA can begin picking up decent yards on the ground in the second half. Cal's rushing defense is, again, not that bad, and with Cowan probably not being 100%, it's critical that UCLA can run the ball for it to win. It was huge that UCLA had two weeks off to get its running backs healthy - or healthier. Kahlil Bell is thought to be recovered from his shoulder injury, but Chris Markey is still questionable with turf toe. It is significant that UCLA will now have its best offensive lineman, Shannon Tevaga, completely recovered.
It will be interesting to see if UCLA goes to the air consistently. It did so against Notre Dame early on with Ben Olson before he was hurt (and did, also, inexplicably, with McLeod Bethel-Thompson), and you'd have to think it would continue with that same, balanced approach in this game against Cal, which doesn't have a defense that is particularly better at stopping the run or the pass.
But you probably have to give the nod to Cal's linebackers, who are among the best linebacking units in the conference, over UCLA's offense, that still hasn't proven it can be effective, especially with all the injuries.