Game preview: Utah defense vs. Cal offense

James Durrant breaks down what to expect when Utah's defensive and special teams units are on the field

No. 18 Utah (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) heads out on the road to face Cal (2-2, 0-1) in a battle of opposing philosophies. Cal is the explosive, fast-paced offense while Utah prefers to control the ball on offense and play stifling defense.
 
Cal has feasted on poor defenses through the first four games, putting up huge offensive production numbers. The Bears are second in the conference scoring 45.5 points per game, and are the top yardage offense, gaining 594.5 yards per game.
 

Cal Offense

When Cal has the ball on offense, expect them to throw the ball regardless of down or distance, as only Washington State throws the ball more often. Cal also plays at a high tempo, running more plays than anyone in the country and at the second-fastest pace (a play every 19.2 seconds of possession).
 
Cal will throw short, deep and everywhere in between, though they favor quick, short passes and screens. Cal’s running game is built off the inside zone, though they can get creative at times in the running game with draws and counters. At times Cal will run away from the pulling lineman, running at the gap the puller left.
 
Cal’s offense runs through star receiver Chad Hansen. The former walk-on transfer from Idaho State has developed not only into the favorite target of quarterback Davis Webb, but one of the top receivers in the country. He leads the country in receptions (50), is second in yards (656) and tied for third in touchdowns (6). He isn’t the biggest, strongest, or fastest receiver, nor is he the most athletic, but his combination of measurables, outstanding hands and body control make him difficult to cover. Even when covered, Webb will throw the ball Hansen’s way, and more often than not Hansen finds ways to come down with the football.
 
Cal’s biggest concern in the passing game is finding someone to take pressure off Hansen. More than a third of Cal’s receptions come from Hansen, with no other player having caught 20 passes despite Cal leading the country in pass attempts. Two true freshmen are turning into reliable targets. Melquise Stovall has had two consecutive solid games, catching 11 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. Demetris Robertson is coming off his first career 100-yard game, catching 4 passes for 103 yards and 2 touchdowns against Arizona State. Both players have outstanding speed and Stovall is one of the more dangerous open-field ball carriers in the conference. Bug Rivera rounds out the top four pass catchers and is the lone senior of the group. Rivera is a solid inside receiver with good quickness and hands. Cal will rotate several players in at receiver, as well as involving their running backs in the passing game. 15 players have caught passes this season.
 
Webb has stepped right in at quarterback, filling in more than capably for No.1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff. The senior transfer from Texas Tech leads the country in pass attempts (222), completions (138), yards (1,837) and touchdowns (18), though he has thrown 5 interceptions. Webb could be more accurate and does have a tendency to force the ball at times, and he could be better reading defenses. He does have a good arm and is a decent athlete, though he isn’t much of a threat to run. Depth is major concern, as Cal does not have an experienced backup. Sophomore Chase Forrest is the only quarterback on the roster other than Webb to have thrown a collegiate pass, as he completed 10 of 18 passes for 162 yards, a touchdown and an interception in 2015 as Goff’s backup. Forrest shares the backup role with redshirt freshman Ross Bowers.
 
With as much as Cal throws the football, the run game look like an afterthought, but the Bears will run the football when given the opportunity. Cal rotates through three backs, with each bringing a different play style to the table. Vic Enwere is the bruiser, and leads the team with 49 carries, 293 yards and 2 touchdowns. Weighing in at 240 pounds, Enwere has good open-field speed and can run through almost any arm tackle. Khalfani Muhammad possesses outstanding speed and quickness, and will not shy away from contact. He is the second leading rusher with 212 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries. Trey Watson is a bit of a mix of styles between Enwere and Muhammad, and is the best pass catcher of the group, catching 5 passes for 91 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown against Arizona State. He has run for 126 yards on 31 carries.
 
The one thing that can be said about Cal’s offensive line is that they are massive, with the top seven linemen averaging 315 pounds. Cal is splitting playing time at both left tackle and right guard. Patrick Mekari started the first two games at left tackle, while Aaron Cochran has started the last two. Cochran is intimidating at 6-foot-8 and 350 pounds, and while he doesn’t have great quickness or footwork, his sheer size and length can make up for his lack of athleticism. He will get caught leaning at times, forcing him to reach out and grab quicker defenders. Mekari is a little quicker with a little better footwork, but he doesn’t have the strength or experience of Cochran. At right guard, Dwayne Wallace and Jeremiah Stuckey have rotated starts through the first four games, and they will rotate drives in a game. Neither are notable in any area, other than Wallace having a tendency to reach out and hold. Both are much better in pass protection than run blocking.
 
Center Addison Ooms is solid, and he does a good job of getting the line on the same page. Ooms does a good job of identifying pressure and is a better run blocker than he is given credit for. He can be overpowered and is at his best when teaming with one of the guards, but he can get to the second level and is quick enough to stay in front and seal off linebackers. Right tackle Steven Moore is a solid player, though he is a bit slow and awkward with his first step, which makes him vulnerable to speed rushers and vulnerable to quick inside counters when he tries to recover to the outside.
 
Left guard Chris Borrayo is the best of the bunch and should break into the All-Pac-12 teams after an honorable mention 2015 season. He is a good athlete for his size (6-foot-3, 325 pounds) and is a solid all-around blocker, equally adept in run blocking and pass protection.
 

Utah Defense

 
Utah’s defense will be tested by injuries and a Cal offense unlike any the Utes have faced to this point in the season. Through the first four games, Utah has faced teams that are slow and methodical in their offensive pace, compared to Cal who plays the game as a sprint. Star defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei missed most of the USC game with an injury, and it is unknown how much or even if he plays against Cal. Already without defensive end Kylie Fitts, Utah’s defensive line depth will be stretched thin, which could be compounded by Cal’s pace.
 
The Utes are one of the top defenses in the conference, and their strengths match up well against the Cal offense. Utah is one of the top scoring defenses, allowing 15.8 points per game, as well as having one of the better pass defenses in the country. Utah is in the top-25 nationally in yards per pass attempt, interceptions, passer rating, sacks, and long passing plays allowed.
 
It is unlikely that Utah will have one player shadow Hansen, as the Utes prefer to keep each outside corner on a specific side of the field, though the top three corners have all played on both sides. Hansen spends most of his time on the right of the offense, where he would be matched up against the left corner, which would be either Brian Allen or Reginald Porter.
 
Defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi is playing all over the line, spending time at defensive end as well as tackle, helping to fill in for Fitts. Mokofisi will likely spend more time at tackle against the pass-heavy Cal offense. He is a solid dual-threat player, leading the tackles with 14 tackles to go with 3 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Pasoni Tasini will fill in for Lotulelei, and has been essentially a third starter at tackle, playing almost as many snaps as the starters. He has taken advantage of single blocks, recording 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Alani Havili-Katoa will be the third tackle. He is inexperienced, though he has potential with his combination of size (6-foot-3, 295 pounds), strength and quickness. Highly-touted freshman Leki Fotu rounds out the two-deep at tackle. Fotu has good size (6-foot-5, 300 pounds), and throughout fall camp showed surprising strength and quickness. He saw his first playing time against San Jose State, though he did not record any statistics.
 
At defensive end, pass rusher Pita Taumoepenu will have plenty of chances to get after the quarterback. Good things generally happen when he gets pressure, as Taumoepenu has forced a fumble on both of his sacks this season. He is a speed rusher going up against tackles that struggle with speed, and he does a good job of swatting at the football when near the quarterback. Hunter Dimick will draw a lot of attention opposite Taumoepenu, as he leads the line with 15 tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. Utah could also play some four linemen sets with three defensive ends, moving Dimick inside over the right guard, especially in long-yardage situations. Chris Hart would be the likely third end in those situations, and he has the potential to be a disruptive pass rusher. Hart has played sparingly this season, working back after missing time due to injury. If Utah has to go four-deep at end, true freshman Bradlee Anae will be that end. Anae saw snaps at the end of the San Jose State game. Linebacker Kavika Luafatasage could also see time on the line-of-scrimmage as a standup defensive end.
 
Utah needs better play out of the linebackers. USC gashed the Utes in the run game mainly due to the poor fits of the Utah linebackers. Cody Barton and Sunia Tauteoli were generally in the right place, but they filled the gap incorrectly, allowing the lineman to easily seal or kick-out the linebacker and the backs to escape away from pursuit and into the open field. Barton in particular struggled in his fits against USC, recording just 2 tackles. Tauteoli fared better, though he was more protected by scheme and allowed to flow to the ball. He recorded 11 tackles against the Trojans, and now leads the team with 32 tackles on the season. Luafatasaga has 3 tackles, and has seen his playing time increase each week as the junior college transfer gets more comfortable in the system.
 
Utah’s secondary will face their most difficult challenge of the season. The Utes are talented and experienced in the secondary, and each individual matchup will be worth watching. Dominique Hatfield had a solid game against USC, his first after missing the start of the season due to injury. He recorded 5 tackles and a pass breakup. Hatfield is the best playmaker of the Utah corners, with the aggressiveness in coverage and ball skills to create turnovers. Porter is having the best season of his career as a senior, leading the corners with 16 tackles and 3 passes defended, including the first two interceptions of his career. Allen has the size and athleticism to cover almost any receiver in the conference, and has turned into a solid all-around corner. He has 14 tackles, a sack, and 3 pass breakups.
 
Utah’s inside corners will see their most snaps of the season, as the Utes will likely play both Justin Thomas and Boobie Hobbs at the same time to match up with Cal’s four-receiver sets. Thomas is the better and more consistent player, and Cal could target whomever Hobbs is covering. Hobbs can be a solid coverage player, though he can be a bit too aggressive and a little sloppy in technique, causing him to be a step behind the receiver at times. Utah might have to rotate in a third inside corner, with Jordan Fogal giving Thomas and Hobbs a breather when needed.
 
Strong safety Chase Hansen is developing into an excellent box safety, though he still needs to improve in coverage. The former quarterback has outstanding size at 6-foot-3, 216 pounds and shows good instincts around the line-of-scrimmage and as a blitzer. Hansen has 20 tackles on the season as well as 2 quarterback hurries. Utah could unveil some three safety looks against Cal, replacing a linebacker with Hansen and bringing in Andre Godfrey. Godfrey is listed as the backup free safety, though he can play either safety position. He is a good athlete and has the range to play deep and the physicality to play the run. Free safety Marcus Williams is the star of the secondary and is a tremendous all-around player. He is second on the team with 24 tackles, and leads the team with 16 solo stops. He also has 2 interceptions and 4 passes defended to go along with a fumble forced and 2 fumble recoveries. Williams might be the best center-field safety in college football with his range, instincts, and ball skills. Look for Utah to shade Williams toward Hansen, almost bracketing the star receiver over the top.
 
Edge: Even
 

Special Teams

 
Placekicker Matt Anderson is solid and consistent, about all that can be asked out of a kicker. He doesn’t have a great leg, though he has enough leg to make kicks from 45-50 yards. He has converted on 7 of 8 kicks this season, 2 of 3 from 40 or more yards, and all 21 of his PAT kicks. Punter Dylan Klumph has a good leg, averaging 45.5 yards per punt with 7 punts of 50 or more yards. He does out-kick his coverage, a reason why teams are averaging 13.5 yards per return. Noah Beito handles kickoffs, averaging 61.5 yards per kick with 10 touchbacks on 33 kickoffs.
 
Cal has not been good on punt returns, netting 2 yards on 6 returns. Vic Wharton and Bug Rivera have been the return men, with Wharton gaining a yard on 4 returns while Rivera has added another yard on 2 returns. Blocking is one reason why, as well as the return men fielding punts they should fair catch or let go.
 
Kick returns is where Cal can shine, with Khalfani Muhammad as one of the more dangerous return men in the conference. He is averaging 27.5 yards on 13 returns with a long of 47, and is likely anxious to face a coverage team that allowed a kick return for a touchdown in the previous game.
 
Cal’s coverage teams have been average at best this season, as inconsistent as their defense when it comes to being in position and making an open-field tackle. Cal is allowing 13.5 yards per punt return and 22.4 yards per kick return, along with 2 kick return touchdowns.
 
Utah’s special teams play needs to improve outside the specialists. The kick coverage team, which had been solid, forgot about lane integrity against USC and were burned, allowing a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown. Boobie Hobbs has been overly aggressive on punt returns, though he didn’t get a chance against USC.
 
The ugliest of the units has been kick returns, where the Utes still have yet to have a return of more than 15 yards. Out of the 6 returns this season, all have been between 12 and 15 yards. The Utes have tried four different return men, all with similar results, though they have not been the problem. Utah needs a better effort out of the 10 blockers on kick returns.
 
Punt coverage has been outstanding, a key component to the best punting unit in the country. The Utes are allowing just 4.2 yards per punt return. Mitch Wishnowsky leads the country with a 52.1-yard punt average, with 10 of his 17 punts travelling 50 or more yards, and 6 of his punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line. He has also been getting good hang-time on his kicks, as just 5 of his punts have been returned.
 
Andy Phillips has been dealing with an injury to his kicking foot, though it hasn’t been noticeable on the field. He has made 6 of his 7 field goal attempts with a long of 47 yards, and all 13 PATs. Hayes Hicken has been solid on kickoffs, though he mis-hit the kick against USC that was returned for a touchdown.
 
EDGE: Utah
 
The matchup with Cal should be a fun one to watch in every phase, and there are individual matchups to suit all tastes. Cal is athletic and explosive, though undisciplined at times in all phases. Utah is disciplined, methodical, and athletic. Utah’s offense is becoming more efficient each game. Cal will not be able to run their 90 offensive plays. Utah’s defense against Cal’s offense is a more even matchup than Cal’s defense against Utah’s offense.
 
Utah 38 Cal 24

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