Despite defeating Grambling State by almost 60 points, Cal football understands that blowing out a mediocre FBS team on its home field means next to nothing.
“At the end of the day, Grambling State has got some good players — there’s no doubt about that. At the same time, you have to be able to put it in perspective, and we’ve talked to our team about that,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes after the game. “We have San Diego State next week, and we know how good a football team that is.”
If Cal’s defense wants to clear its muddied name this season, a good place to start is to shut down a small conference FBS school. Though the Aztecs have made five straight bowl games, nobody would ever claim that they are a college football heavyweight. But at the very least, San Diego State presents more of a challenge to the Bears’ defense than the subpar Tigers, who were on their way to being shut out until Cal finally slowed down a hair in the second half.
The Aztecs, on the other hand, are armed with a monstrous offensive line and junior running back Donnel Pumphrey. Containing Pumphrey will be an interesting change of pace for Cal defensive coordinator Art Kaufman’s crew, which faced a Tigers offense that recorded only 127 total rushing yards. Pumphrey, the Aztecs’ reigning team MVP, set a single-season program record last year with 1,867 rushing yards and averaged 6.8 yards per carry. Among active FBS players, he is currently second in yards per carry with 6.4 and is sixth in total touchdowns with 31. San Diego State has a 10-3 record when Pumphrey rushes for 100 yards or more and is 13-5 in games when he tallies at least one rushing touchdown.
In the Aztecs’ season opener against San Diego, Pumphrey finished the game with 62 yards on 19 carries. Despite averaging only a meager 4.6 yards per carry against the Toreros, the Aztecs will keep handing the ball off to Pumphrey, meaning the Bears will have to stack the box more than they normally do. Though Pumphrey is only 5-foot-9, the diminutive tailback is undoubtedly the core of San Diego State’s offense, also serving as an important receiving option for Aztecs quarterback Maxwell Smith.
But the adage is that football is won in the trenches, which certainly holds true for the Aztecs, who boast one of the most physical lines in the game.
“Their O-line is probably as big as we’ve seen. I think they’ve got one guy that weighs 300 pounds. Everybody else is over 300 pounds. They’re big, they’re physical,” Kaufman said. “They’re a different style ball than what we see a lot of. It’s a matter of adjusting our defense and getting our guys to understand where they’ve got to be and, even more importantly, the technique and the physically of this ball game.”
As a run-first team, San Diego State likes to bleed the clock as much as possible. And with the Bears’ up-tempo offense, Cal’s defense is inevitably going to spend most of its time on the field. The Bears will have to deal with the constant question of fatigue, as the Aztecs undoubtedly will look to impose their will on Cal’s front seven. This will allow Pumphrey to find open running lanes and relieve the pressure on Smith. Holding off the Aztecs’ linemen this Saturday will be the first step for Cal to make a name for itself on the other side of the ball.
“Hopefully, it’s the first step of our defense getting on the same level as our offense nationally,” said Cal cornerback Cameron Walker. “We’ve been talked about badly since I’ve been here. It’s finally time to get rid of that and make forward strides.”