Look, this was Cal Week. Since the Leach Era began, there has been a heavy amount of bovine excrement expected when Cal and Wazzu meet up. You could have told me just about any prediction you had and I would have believed it. I mean this is a series that has seen 734 passing yards and 59 points by one team in one game lose, consecutive kickoff returns by the same player running almost exactly the same path go for six, the 8th-ranked team in the country losing by 34 points to an unranked opponent, a 3rd-and-36 conversion on the ground, safeties, wildfire smoke, pick-six-touchbacks, defensive PAT conversions, and most unbelievable of all, Devon Modster looking like a competent QB. And now you can add in a blocked punt for a first down and possibly the greatest catch ever made, and I don’t even think that’s all that hyperbolic.
But if you would have told me that the defense of the Washington State University football team in the Year of Our Lord 2021 would hold the offense of the University of California at Berkeley—who had done virtually whatever they wanted to against their previous three opponents, including a certain team to the west whose defense is often referred to as “good”—to less than 300 total yards of offense and six points? In a regulation-length game? Of American football? My reaction to your words would have been JenniferLawrenceOkay.gif.
But they did it! For the first time since 2018 against Colorado, the defense held a conference opponent to a single digit point total and under 300 total yards. But the question remains whether the performance is repeatable. At first glance against Utah the previous week, the box score looks ok. 24 points for Utah, of which seven were from the late pick-six. But if you look a little bit closer, there are some details that are concerning. For one, Utah averaged over six yards a carry for the game, and averaged nearly seven yards per play in the second half. For two, Utah put the ball on the ground five times, of which Wazzu recovered three. And one of those was on the doorstep of the end zone. I’m not a huge fan of the term “fumble luck,” but the reality is that you can’t rely on the opponent coughing it up five times every week. For three, the defensive line generated one sack and zero hurries. That, combined with the rushing totals, tells us that the Utah offensive line was controlling the line of scrimmage.
In the context of the following week, that Utah game looks a little better. Most significantly, the defensive line played extremely well against Cal. Sacks, hurries, run fits, everything was an improvement. And when the DL raises their game, that helps everybody out. DBs don’t have to cover as long, linebackers get more space in which to operate, it’s just a lot more fun for everybody involved. In some cases, it was a scheme thing with timely and creative blitz packages. In other cases, it was simply our guy beating their guy. Which is a nice change.
There are still pieces of the box score that are a concern. Cal had seven runs that went for 10 or more yards on only 30 non-sack rushes. One out of every four carries getting a chunk is not great. Although it should be noted that Cal also didn’t have a designed run longer than 12 yards, so there were no complete breakdowns. Additionally, Chase Garbers averaged nearly 11 yards per completion, meaning the secondary is still questionable.
Is this a signal that the defense is figuring it out? It’s still too soon to tell, but it’s an encouraging development. Let’s take a look at the improvements on the defensive line with some tape from the Cal game.
Controlling the line of scrimmage is the name of the game when it comes to defending interior runs. That is even more important when the offense is running any sort of heavy set. Cal loads up here with two tight ends to what will be the play side, plus motioning in a receiver to act as a third tight end/fullback. They run a power look to the defense’s right, so the goal is to wash down the right side of the defensive line leaving the linebackers as the last box defenders. One gets kicked out by the pulling guard, the other gets driven back by the pulling center. At least on paper.
The right side of the defensive line does get washed down pretty effectively, but what makes this play for the WSU defense is the penetration of the left defensive tackle, #96 Antonio Pule. He gets in the hip pocket of the center and causes all sorts of havoc in the backfield. Most importantly, he forces the center to bubble back making him unable to lead up into the hole. Jahad Woods reads the play well, scrapes to the hole, and cleans up for an easy TFL. Typical life for a defensive lineman; he does all the dirty work and the linebacker gets the glory.
The defensive coaching staff gave Cal’s offensive line fits with its blitz looks. They had a lot of success showing a heavy blitz, then only bringing four or five. This led to confusion on blocking assignments and Chase Garbers getting very uncomfortable in the pocket. A good example here early in the second quarter with WSU presenting a seven-man rush and sending five. No rusher gets completely free—although Daniel Isom comes close to beating the running back at the bottom of the screen—but the pocket is squeezed to the point that it flushes Garbers straight into the arms of Justus Rogers, who may have been spying the QB.
The design of the stunt is pretty sweet too. Woods crashes hard off the right edge, Isom from safety flies up to the left edge. Ron Stone, Brennan Jackson, and Andrew Edson slant or loop hard to the right exploiting the space created by Woods’ blitz. It’s a pretty impressive escape job by Garbers.
This might be the most solid defensive play of the night, considering the circumstance. It’s late in the third quarter and the Cougs are trying to protect a two score lead. Cal has a rare 3rd and short situation in plus territory. They run a toss sweep to a bunch formation at the top of the screen and initially it looks like they have leverage with six to block six on the front side. But the play goes bad for Cal when Rogers, Armani Marsh, and Isom all beat their blocks as they fly to the point of attack.
With the Cougar defense playing so well, Cal’s hand is forced and they feel they have to go for it on 4th and 3. Ron Stone and Brennan Jackson bring enough pressure around the edge to force a bad throw from Garbers and the ball goes back to the Cougs.
Coach Dickert and company were not shy about blitzing from every level of the defense. On a 2nd and 9 midway through the second, WSU sent a corner blitz from the short of the field that was close to being a sack, but ended up forcing an incompletion.
They take advantage of the 3rd and long and send a safety blitz—again from Isom—and Garbers had no chance at a play here.
Surprisingly, Cal had called a zone read here, likely just hoping to get some yardage and set up a reasonable field goal attempt. Because of the big loss on the 3rd down (set up by the flush on 2nd) Cal is left in no man’s land and goes for a 4th and 14, which they fail to convert by way of the Jaylen Watson pick.
Sometimes a guy just makes a play for you. Here, Armani Marsh (who played his best game as a Coug so far) just beats the block to the inside and meets the back in the backfield. A huge play on 3rd and short in front of the goal line in the 4th quarter.
That set up another semi-desperate 4th down attempt for Cal and, again, they failed to convert.
And sometimes one of your pass rushers just whoops an offensive lineman’s butt. Like Willie Taylor III did here with the dip & rip:
And then Brennan Jackson did (61 for Cal did not have a good day on Saturday):
Credit to Jake Dickert and the defensive coaching staff. Their game plan was effective and Cal had trouble identifying blitz packages, giving Cal all sorts of trouble and preventing them from dictating the line of scrimmage like they wanted to. Outside of the first drive, of course. And credit to the defensive players as a unit. As a coach, you can draw up the prettiest of Xs and Os, but if your players don’t execute, it doesn’t really matter.
The question, of course, is whether this is sustainable. We had the same questions coming out of last week. Against Utah, the defense played all right outside of the fourth quarter, but really benefitted from the Utes shooting themselves in the foot by way of turnovers. Turnovers, and particularly fumbles, are a fickle mistress, and a defense that is relying on them solely is going to have a tough time being consistent.
The defense against Cal was a little different. The defense was much more solid at all levels, and made plays when it needed to, specifically on 3rd and 4th downs. The concern would be that some of Cal’s decisions were based on the circumstances of that game. Notably, the 4th down attempts in the latter stages of the game. If the Cougar defenders continue to make individual plays and beat the guys across from them, we might be on to something with this defense. If they don’t win those one-on-one battles, well, we regress back to the defense we’ve seen in the first seven games of the Nick Rolovich era.
But how many times can you ask “is this sustainable?” before... well... it turns out it was sustainable? Oregon State is similar scheme-wise to what Cal wanted to do, so it stands to reason the WSU defense might be well-suited for this week’s match-up. Would another performance like this from the defense mean we... have a good defense? That feels weird to type.
I would like to type it many more times.