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In the wake of an unimpressive performance against Hawaii’s Rainbow Warriors and a beating at the hand of the San Diego State Aztecs, it’s clear enough that Cal isn’t really capable of playing great defense against Texas’ Veer and Shoot offense. I get the sense that Sonny Dykes is struggling to build the kind of tough football culture that is necessary to foster physical defenses.
Their biggest issues will come against Texas’ power run game. I have no idea how they even intend to get extra help in the box without getting eviscerated by the Texas passing game but I’m sure they’ll send help from somewhere. Maybe the bigger problem is the way they send help. There are two main types of “plus 1” safety support teams use to stuff opposing run games. One is to drop the safety into the cutback lane and fast flow the linebackers after the ball, a method typical of teams like TCU. The other is to have the linebackers slow play the run and fill their initial gaps while using the down safety to fill behind either one of them.
Suffice to say, Cal’s linebackers don’t do a very good job of helping the down safety out very much and the down safety is not a guy that you worry will make a lot of plays against D’Onta Foreman and co anyways. Let’s move on to the Cal offense because the only chance the Bears have in this game is if they can score tons of points.
So far this year the Bears are who we thought they were on offense. Stopping them is primarily about stopping erstwhile Nahlin fave, Davis Webb. The Bears are replacing a ton of weapons on offense from a year ago as well as a few offensive linemen but it should surprise no one to learn that their new receivers are as dangerous working in space against isolated defensive backs as the old ones. If you were shocked by their offensive output post-Goff and co you were probably also stunned when Jake Oliver and Jacorey Warrick found a pulse playing in the new Texas offense.
A year ago, Texas actually kept Cal’s passing game under control with Goff throwing 37 passes for 268 yards (7.2 yards per pass), three TDs, and zero INTs. That’s not shutting a guy down but that’s a lot less damage then Cal needed to outscore Texas. The way Vance Bedford achieved this result was with normal cover 2 mixed in with four-under/two-deep fire zone blitzes. With two deep safeties on most snaps, Texas could mostly keep passes in front of them and limit the damage.
Where this failed was against the run and the two main Bear backs combined for 26 carries that went for 237 rushing yards (9.1 yards per carry!) and three more TDs.
It stands to reason that the approach in 2016 would be to keep numbers in the box, play more man or cover 3 with the corners trusted to stay on top of routes without safety help (we’re talking Davante Davis, Sheroid Evans, Holton Hill, and Kris Boyd now, not John Bonney or Antwuan Davis), regularly bring five pass-rushers, and make Webb win the game.
Whether or not he’s capable of doing this probably depends on two factors, one is whether his own defense and special teams can even keep the Bears in the game, the other is how well he attacks Texas in the middle of the field.
Jared Goff excelled at reading the field from the pocket, manipulating defenders with his eyes, and throwing strikes. Davis Webb has a bit less of that and a little more ability to move around and throw without first setting his feet. He’s actually comparable to Shane Buechele in the way he can see an opportunity and get off a nice ball in an instant. He can throw the ball outside the hash marks but I’m betting Cal aims inside first, especially if Texas brings five as often as I expect.
This game is going to be a referendum on how much Malik Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler, P.J. Locke, Jason Hall, and DeShon Elliott have learned about playing high-level pass coverage against the spread offense. Both Wheeler and Malik in particular have both shown tremendous potential as underneath coverage defenders because of their athletic range but are still learning how to read passing patterns and deny windows. If they’ve picked up a thing or two in this week of film study and the cornerbacks play as expected, this game is going to be over quick. Otherwise, things could be interesting for a while.