Pundits are divided on whether to be more incredulous or impressed by the 2014 Cal football team. Despite being heralded as the runt of the litter, the Bears (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12) are perched atop the Pac-12 North, somehow wrestling victories away from their opponents. The upstart Bears, who will welcome Washington to Memorial Stadium on Saturday, are now looking to begin a season 5-1 for the first time since 2007.
One of the biggest questions remains Cal’s defense, which gave up an NCAA-record 734 passing yards to Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday. The unit does not seem to be markedly improved under new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, surrendering an average of 545 yards of total offense thus far. The Bears’ secondary remains a glaring Achilles’ heel, holding the peculiar distinction of being the only FBS team to yield more than 400 passing yards a game.
“If you look at our team right now, we’ve been able to stay pretty consistent offensively just in terms of personnel,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “Defensively, it’s been different. We just don’t have that kind of depth. We’ve had to play 41 newcomers.”
The biggest difference for the defense will be facing a Huskies team that relies notably more on the run game than on the passing attack. Last week’s opponent, Washington State, especially relied on the arm of quarterback Halliday even more than the Bears lean on Jared Goff. But the Huskies rank 109th out of 128 teams in passing attempts, averaging only 25.8 per game while ranking 16th in rushing attempts with an astounding 48.4 a game. Washington’s ground game has been its go-to almost by default, with sophomore quarterback Cyler Miles struggling to bring the passing game to life and the team’s wideouts proving inconsistent. But between a subpar Husky offense and a mediocre-at-best Cal defense, something has to give.
The flurry of defensive stats looks better for Cal when you look at its performance against the run, with the Bears allowing a little more than 117 rushing yards a game. But none of Cal’s opponents so far have exactly played smashmouth football, electing to throw the ball frequently and pick on young defensive backs rather than utilize play action. With such a limited sample size, it is hard to confirm the prowess of the Bears’ run defense.
“You have to commit to stopping the run, because they’re physical enough to pound you when they want to pound you,” Dykes said. “It presents a different set of challenges. The biggest thing we’ve got to do probably more than anything else is we’ve got to get off the field on third down.”
The game will likely come down to what happens at the line of scrimmage. Between the Bears’ much-maligned defense and the proficiency of the offense, Cal’s performance in the trenches has been largely overlooked. The Bears’ offensive line has only allowed eight sacks so far and will confront some of their biggest challenges yet in Washington seniors Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha, who are tied for third in the country with seven sacks each. One of the more experienced units of Cal’s offense, the O-line has yet to face a defensive line quite as impactful as Washington’s.
“They’ve got two good edge pass-rushers, two guys that have good speed and can run around tackles,” Dykes said. “When the quarterback tries to step up because of the edge pressure, he’s stepping up into a guy that’s getting good push. They’ve done a nice job of mixing things up.”
Despite defense being the relative strength of this Huskies team, a similarly young secondary may fall victim to Goff and his deep corps of receivers. If this game evolves into a shootout — as so many Cal games seem to do — the Bears will hold the advantage.