Cal’s defense is bad.
But I don’t need to tell you this. It’s no secret that Cal has been burned both through the air and on the ground, week in and week out. By now, it’s become an expectation. On Saturday, it was Washington running back Bishop Sankey’s turn to tear apart Cal’s defense.
Twenty-seven carries, 241 yards, two touchdowns and an average of 8.9 yards per carry. Sankey didn’t just run over Cal’s defense Saturday night; he beat Andy Buh’s squad to a pulp.
Saturday provided a prime example of what happens when you put one of the best ball-carriers in the country on the same field as one of the country’s worst defenses. All you have to do is watch Sankey’s 59-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter to see Sankey’s running ability and Cal’s defense doing what it has done all season: being out of position and missing routine tackles.
With that, let’s go to the tape.
Trailing 17-7 with a little more than a minute remaining in the first half, Washington is faced with a third and three from its own 41-yard line. If the Bears manage to stop the Huskies and force a punt, at the very worst Cal enters halftime only down by 10.
Washington is lined up in the shotgun formation with two wide receivers, one on the right and one on the left. The Huskies’ tight end is lined up on the right side of the line as an extra blocker. To quarterback Keith Price’s left is Sankey.
Because of the camera angle, Washington and Cal appear to only have 10 players on the field, but I am assuming that both have players lined up close to the nearest sideline, where the camera is cut off.
The Bears come out with four linemen, three linebackers and three defensive backs. The key Bears to watch on this play are linebacker Jalen Jefferson — lined up to the right of the line of scrimmage — and defensive back Cameron Walker, who is lined up behind Jefferson.
The ball is snapped to Price, who immediately places it in Sankey’s belly. It’s a read-option play, and Price has three options to work with: He can let Sankey take the ball heading to the right, he can keep it himself and run left or he can fire a quick wide receiver screen to the left sideline.
Because of the myriad options, Cal is forced to defend against three different plays. Jefferson holds contain on the outside, making sure Price can’t pull the ball out of Sankey’s stomach and run with it to the outside. Walker then covers the wide receiver screen.
Price sees Jefferson on the outside, so he elects to hand the ball off to Sankey while Washington’s offensive line plows over Cal’s defensive line. The offensive line’s goal is to push Cal’s defensive line to the middle of the field so the right side is open for Sankey and the left side is open for Price.
Washington’s left guard cuts at the feet of Cal’s defensive tackle, and the left tackle looks to block Cal’s defensive tackle to the inside in case Price wants to run the ball around the left edge. Similarly, on the right side of the line, the tight end and right tackle both block to the inside. On the right, Washington’s wide receiver cuts straight to the inside and takes out Cal’s safety.
Because Sankey is heading to the right, the Huskies’ center and right tackle pull — meaning they back out of their initial stance and swing to the right. They’re running ahead of Sankey and are responsible for clearing out the second level of defenders. They succeed in their task, taking out both Cal’s middle and left linebacker.
From here, the rest is up to Sankey. The junior starts going right, but as he reaches the line of scrimmage, he recognizes the gaping hole created by the right side of the line. Sankey cuts back toward the middle of the field and dashes through the hole at the line of scrimmage.
Sankey clearly already has enough yardage for a fresh set of downs, but Jefferson recognizes that Price isn’t going to keep the ball himself and is hot on Sankey’s tail. At the 48-yard line, Jefferson is in the perfect spot to bring down the ball carrier. Instead, he whiffs on the tackle, as Sankey somehow escapes from his clutches and enters the open field alone.
Rewinding this play, I’m still not sure how Jefferson failed to bring down Sankey. But why was Jefferson the only defender with a shot at a tackle? The answer is simple: In addition to good blocking by Washington’s offensive line and poor defensive line play, Cal also found itself out of position.
I mentioned that Walker is covering the wide receiver in case Price throws the quick screen. But Walker is still sprinting toward the receiver when Sankey is handed the ball. By the time Sankey is crossing the line of scrimmage, Walker is still running at the receiver with no eyes on the ball. Walker is Cal’s deepest defender on the play, but he can’t provide any help because he’s not even in the picture.
From the nonexistent defensive line play to Walker’s positioning to Jefferson’s missed tackle, only two words come to mind to describe the defense: C’mon, man.