Lupoi’s absence haunts Bears’ defense

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When defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi left Cal to take the same position at Washington, he didn’t just leave his former team devoid of a head recruiter.

Heading into the 2012 season, Cal’s defensive line was unanimously considered to be the clear strength of the team. With a core of veterans like Aaron Tipoti, Deandre Coleman and Kendrick Payne pairing with up and comers like Viliami Moala and Mustafa Jalil, the defensive line was supposed to be the deepest unit on the squad.

Under new defensive line coach Todd Howard, that unit has been far more of a liability than strength. Cal’s front three have been abused by offensive linemen on a regular basis this year. A lack of any consistent inside pressure has allowed opponents to rush for more than 160 yards a game – the 65th ranked mark in the nation — in a pass-happy Pac-12.

Cal’s defense does rank 28th nationally in sacks, having tallied 23 on the year. But only nine of those have come from the defensive line. Part of that disparity can be attributed to Cal’s 3-4 system that relies on linebacker blitzes to get to the quarterback. Still, nine sacks through nine games from what was supposed to be Cal’s top unit is thoroughly underwhelming.

Compare that to 2011, when the Bears depended on their run stopping ability to win, giving up almost 40 yards less per game. Linebackers Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt had more than a little to do with that, but Cal’s defensive line constantly won the line of scrimmage and disrupted the opposing running game.

Now it becomes a question of coaching versus talent. But it’s hard to believe that this year’s defensive line is any worse than last year on a pure talent basis.

When Lupoi departed Cal, he left behind three years’ worth of top-notch defensive line recruits. Names like Gabe King, Todd Barr, Moala and Jalil were all listed with four or five stars next to their names. It seemed inevitable that 2012 would feature some dominant line play from the Bears.

The defense has a whole has outplayed the offense. Cal has often fallen victim to an offense that seems to have an inability to sustain drives and stay on the field, forcing the unit to play an exorbitant amount of time on the field. Against Arizona State, Cal’s defense was in for 94 plays, while the offense snapped just over 60. Nevada was the same story, as the Wolf Pack ran 89 plays to Cal’s 67.

Yet while that might help explain how Nevada put up 220 yards on the ground and ASU ran for 116, it doesn’t excuse a Cal defensive line only getting past a middling Nevada offensive line once to record a sack on 32 pass attempts from quarterback Cody Fajardo.

Coach Howard has too much talent at his disposal to be posting the numbers that his unit is currently putting up. A quick glance at what Lupoi has done with Washington’s defensive line might lead some to believe that things wouldn’t be any different in Berkeley had he stayed, as the Huskies are giving up almost 20 more yards per game on the ground than in 2011.

But the defense as a whole is giving up a touchdown less per game than it did last year, and Lupoi’s line – which has a shade of the talent and potential of Cal’s – has played a major role.

Lupoi left Cal reeling in more ways than one. If Todd Howard and the rest of the defensive coaches don’t shore up the defensive line quickly, they’ll all be headed for an ugly departure.

Connor Byrne covers football. Contact him at [email protected]