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If WSU can hang onto the ball, Cal will give up yards ... and probably points

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The Golden Bears' improvement on defense has been fueled by takeaways -- something that is notoriously fickle and unsustainable.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Cal comes into Saturday's matchup 4-0 and ranked 24th in both the AP and coaches polls. The Golden Bears -- who could match their win total from a year ago with a victory on Saturday -- are riding high, and while the lion's share of the credit is going to quarterback Jared Goff, Cal's improvement on defense is playing a role, too.

The Golden Bears came into the season with similar aspirations as WSU: Get the defense playing merely at a mediocre level and let an explosive offense do what it does. And in that respect, Cal seems to have succeeded: The Golden Bears have lowered their yards per play from 6.27 (107th) in 2014 to 5.55 (79th) this season. Their S&P+ (an opponent adjusted measure of efficiency) has improved from 108th to 57th.

But a little deeper look reveals Cal's defense might not be as improved as it appears.

Although the Golden Bears' defensive ranking in S&P+ has jumped dramatically, the unit doesn't rank above 71st nationally in any of the peripheral metrics (glossary):

  • Rushing S&P+: 114th
  • Passing S&P+: 71st
  • Standard Downs S&P+: 94th
  • Passing Downs S&P+: 84th
  • Success Rate+: 107th
  • IsoPPP+: 97th

That might seem weird, but it makes a lot more sense when you consider Cal has been otherworldly in another stat:

  • Turnover margin: 7th

The Golden Bears have taken the ball away 14(!) times in four games. (Have I already mentioned that Cal and WSU had pretty much the same plan for improvement?) Predictably, that has had an outsized impact on the unit's effectiveness. But while coaches love to preach ball hawking and having a takeaway mentality and all that sort of stuff, the truth of the matter is this: Turnovers are wildly unpredictable, and counting on them to sustain a defense is a recipe for getting exposed.

Analysts and armchair coaches alike love to characterize turnovers as being "forced," but if you think about it logically, whether a team commits turnovers is almost entirely in the hands of that team. Consider Cal's five "forced" turnovers against UW last weekend:

Turnover 1: Cal makes a nice strip sack, ball rolls right to Cal defender.

Turnover 2: DB makes a nice play on an underthrown ball.

Turnover 3: UW receiver literally just drops the ball while being tackled, ball again rolls right to Cal defender.

Turnover 4: Running back fails to secure the ball, ball is punched out shortly after handoff, Cal beats UW to the loose ball.

Turnover 5: Poor decision by the QB to force a ball into coverage.

Cal deserves a ton of credit for being in position to make a play on four of these. But it's also important to acknowledge the degree to which these turnovers were on Washington and enhanced by some good fortune. Neither of the interceptions were exceptional plays; if the quarterback doesn't throw the ball to guys who are plainly covered, they never happen. Additionally, fumbles can be prevented by securing the ball, and even when the ball does end up on the ground as a result of a tremendous play by the defense -- as with the strip of the running back in the backfield -- recoveries are notoriously fickle. (Before going 3-for-3 on Saturday, Cal had recovered just two of six opponent fumbles; Washington has lost six of its seven fumbles this season!)

WSU has turned the ball over just three times in three games: Once on a muffed punt against Portland State, once when Peyton Bender came in cold to try and engineer a game-winning drive against the Vikings but ended up throwing an interception, and once when Luke Falk and Gabe Marks had a miscommunication against Wyoming. That's it.

While Falk hasn't really tested defenses deep too much, limiting the explosiveness of the Cougars, the conservative throws have ensured that turnovers have been kept to a minimum. And there's reason to believe that if WSU can take care of the ball -- as it has for the vast majority of the year -- Cal might have a rough time living up the perception of its improvement on defense.

After all, even with five turnovers, Cal still allowed 24 points to UW in that narrow victory. There are points to be had if the Cougars don't repeatedly give the Golden Bears an escape hatch.