Last Saturday, Cal wasn’t the only Pac-12 team catching a beating in the Pacific Northwest. While Cal stumbled to a 55-16 defeat at the hands of Oregon, Washington State was in the midst of its own embarrassing loss to Stanford at CenturyLink Field.
But No. 2 Oregon and No. 5 Stanford routing Cal and Washington State is nothing to write home about — after all, both victors are arguably the two best teams in the Pac-12, while Cal and Washington State are expected to be bottom-dwellers in the conference.
And on Saturday, the bottom-dwellers are set to clash at Memorial Stadium. Key for both teams will be generating a disruptive pass rush. Since 2012, Cal’s struggles in the trenches are well-documented. Even with head coach Sonny Dykes taking over for Jeff Tedford and the Air Raid replacing the pro-style offense ran under Tedford, the offensive line has still failed to make any improvements — the Bears surrender nearly four sacks every game despite the rapid-fire offensive system.
It’s an area in which Washington State holds an advantage over Cal. While the offensive line play in Pullman has been subpar, the Cougars still allow under two sacks per game. If Cal hopes to come away with its first Pac-12 win against the Cougars, the pass rush will need to improve drastically. Through the first four games, Cal averaged just one sack per game, tying for 111th in the country.
But in Washington State’s loss to Stanford on Saturday, the Cardinal provided Cal with a blueprint for getting to the quarterback — specifically, when Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday was sacked and stripped by Stanford defensive end Josh Mauro in the first quarter.
On the play, Mauro is credited with the sack, but the real praise should be directed at blitzing linebacker A.J. Tarpley. The senior blitzes the gap between the left tackle and left guard and is rewarded with a path to the quarterback with only a running back in his way. While Tarpley capitalized on the freeway to Halliday by flushing him out the right and into Mauro, the gap between the left guard and left tackle wouldn’t have appeared without a crucial Cougar mistake.
Stanford rushes three defensive linemen, while its defender lined up over Washington State’s left tackle drops back into pass coverage over the middle. Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason deserves credit for a perfectly timed play call. With Washington State running two mirroring crossing patterns over the field and Stanford’s middle linebacker blitzing, it appears to Halliday that the middle of the field is wide open. But with the defender lined up over the left tackle migrating to the middle of the field, Mason accounts for the crossing patterns, even with Tarpley blitzing.
Washington State’s costly mistake is committed by left guard Joe Dahl. The gap for Tarpley opens up because of a mental error by Drahl. The redshirt sophomore should be the one picking up Tarpley, but instead, Dahl’s attention is focused on the defensive tackle, who starts his pass rush to the left. Left tackle Gunner Eklund is solely responsible for blocking Stanford’s right end. Center Elliot Bosch and right guard John Fullington should be matched up against Stanford’s defensive tackle, and right tackle Rico Forbes is tasked with taking care of Mauro.
With Tarpley running free through the gap, Washington State running back Marcus Mason steps up and delivers a solid block on Tarpley. Despite applying the proper blocking technique, Mason is still moved backward by Tarpley — weighing in at 238 pounds, the linebacker outweighs the smaller running back by 50 pounds. Tarpley’s blitz forces Halliday to the right side of the pocket, where Mauro is working one-on-one with Forbes. The right tackle does his job perfectly, holding Mauro at bay. But with Halliday drifting to his right, Halliday essentially walks right into the waiting arms of Maurio, who causes a fumble with a vicious hit.
By only rushing four total defenders on the play — three linemen and one linebacker — seven of Stanford’s defenders are left in coverage against four Washington State receivers. Between five linemen, the blitz should be picked up, but Dahl, Bosch and Fullington triple-team the interior lineman, essentially laying out a path to the quarterback for Tarpley. In a nutshell, Mason confuses the Cougars’ offensive line.
It’s a strategy that Cal should utilize on Saturday. Even worse than Cal’s defensive line has been the play by its defensive backs. Cal can’t afford to send the house at Halliday and leave its corners one-on-one with Cougar receivers. Instead, defensive coordinator Andy Buh needs to focus on confusing a Washington State offensive line that failed to pick up a fairly simply blitz concept against Stanford.
Working against Buh and the Bears is the recent dismissal of defensive end Chris McCain. Last season, McCain tied for the team lead in sacks with then-senior Kendrick Payne. With both sack leaders from last year absent, and with the defensive lineman DeAndre Coleman failing to live up to his potential, pressure on the quarterback is going to have to be a product of defensive scheme, not a result of individual ability.