Most of the postgame reaction has been focused on Cal's lamentable defensive effort, especially against the pass. It's been discussed everywhere, and I figured I'd throw myself into the fire. Literally, since I figure 80-85% of Cal fans will disagree with my next statement:
Outside of Autzen, Bob Gregory hasn't done that much wrong.
Now before all of you start hollering about Prince and Tuel lighting us up, I understand where you guys are coming from. Like many people, I assumed that the depletion of our linebacking corps would be offset by improvements in the defensive line and the secondary, with everyone having starting experience coming back.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Units don't just revamp at certain areas and expect to get by because the front and the back are supporting them. The linebackers are the core of the defense, especially in a 3-4; take them away and the middle is open to exploitation.
Think of an army with great tanks and experienced soldiers but no aircraft, anti-aircraft or flak. You might have the power and the wherewithal to take out your opponents, but a good enough air attack can blast all that heavy weaponry and veteran savvy out of the park. So it is with the passing defense this season, where the weakness of the linebackers has been felt by the rest of the lineup.
Cal is returning seven but we're missing those four BIG TIME. Let's rank the top players on our defense last year.
1) Zack Follett
2) Syd'Quan Thompson
3) Tyson Alualu
4) Anthony Felder
5) Worrell Williams
6) Mike Mohamed
7) Darian Hagan
8) Rulon Davis (when healthy)
So those four who are gone are in the top 8, and the three linebackers in the top five. Big big losses.
Rulon Davis might never have been as healthy as we'd have liked him to be, but when he was, he was ON. Cameron Jordan is a jolly guy from what I've seen, but at the moment he really hasn't stepped up to replace Davis's raw ability. Don't be deceived by those 6.5 sacks--3.5 came against really bad teams. He's on pace for 2008 numbers, and he's playing probably 50% more than last season after splitting time with Rulon in 2008.
Derrick Hill has performed well, but centers can still battle him one on one, leaving one side to double, triple team Alualu at will. So that means that extra one or two guys blitzing or moving in on the line of scrimmage has to step up, rush in, and hit the quarterback.
Cal does not have a pass rushing linebacker. When Cal put that linebacker at the LoS on passing downs last season (usually Follett), it collapsed the pocket, overwhelmed the edge and forced the quarterback into the errant throws, incompletions or sacks. Not this season. Young, Mohamed, Kendricks, Bishop, Holt, none of these guys have been able to fill that mantle. Jarred Price might be the guy to show it, but what he has in pass rush (2 sacks) he lacks in consistency (4 season tackles)
Follett had 10.5 sacks and 4 hurries on his own last season; through seven games, the ENTIRE Bears linebackers corps has combined for 7.5 sacks and 4 hurries.
Note: Interestingly enough (as you probably saw with some of the highlights), Gregory tinkered with a four down linemen set on passing downs to gain extra pass rush, although I'm not sure how much of it had an effect on slowing down Tuel. I'd been pondering a similar idea considering the weakness of our linebackers to add an extra defensive lineman (our strength) for more pass rush, and it seemed Gregory was thinking along the same lines. We'll see how it bears out when Cal plays formidable/weaker offensive lines down the road.
Cal's linebacking corps is still learning the pass defense ropes: Probably the biggest mistake I made in my predictions was asking this question: "is Mike Mohamed capable of becoming Cal's greatest linebacker of the Tedford era?" Whoops. Desmond Bishop, you keep the title.
Don't get me wrong, Mohamed's been good, still the best all-around linebacker for the Bears (he has picks, a forced fumble, a sack, and 61 tackles). Nevertheless, he seems to be suffering from the Rajon Rondo syndrome--he looked like the best linebacker last season because guys were always throwing in his direction to avoid Felder and Williams. Unlike Follett or Desmond, he lacks that game-changing ability. Maybe that'll change, but right now he's merely good when Cal needs great.
Devin Bishop and Eddie Young are okay, but as BWNQ noted, they probably lack proper football instincts, as they've been duped on several important occasions by doing bad things on the field. No matter how good the coaching is, it's REALLY hard to undo instinct.
As for Kendricks and Holt, they have promise, but as sophomores they're still not fully polished. We can probably expect better things from them...in 2010. Right now we can only hope they're given the time to grow and mature so they can come back and smash next season.
Finally, the secondary. This is probably the most mystifying of the three units, even to a guy like me. Last season these guys were ballhawks, and now they're getting pumpfaked, beat at the point of attack. What's going on??
Syd'Quan Thompson has done his job, but the other side, plainly, has not. Darian Hagan got pump-faked out of the starting lineup in Minnesota. Josh Hill got the Oregon start and got picked on, over and over and over. And then both have been taking their turn even though they've been playing more man coverage. Although both are improving, it does leave you a little frustrated, especially with Hagan, who looked so promising last season. The safeties have been competent--Ezeff and Johnson are good at delivering hits, and Cattouse has also shown great promise, but for whatever reason they've been beat a lot.
So why has the secondary regressed? A few possibilities:
1) With the linebackers having trouble defending their zones and tackling afterwards, the secondary has to edge toward the middle of the field to be prepared to support...which in turn opens up the flats and sideline throws. And it doesn't necessarily secure the middle either.
2) The secondary might be more experienced, but given the depth of gamefilm, there is plenty for opposing teams to scout on them. Cal's secondary is not like USC's, whose weaknesses are harder to pinpoint and exploit. Even Syd'Quan might be lockdown one-on-one, but he's still undersized--tall physical receivers can do damage against him if given the proper time. You can only imagine how many more double moves and pump fakes against Hagan and throws to the flats against Hill we'll see this year.
3) PAY ATTENTION. This is the big one...
There are a lot of good quarterbacks in the Pac-10 this season.
Four freshmen have shown great promise--Foles, Luck, Barkley, and, yes, even Tuel (don't forget he also went about 67% against USC too). Add in three guys who've been here before (Masoli, Locker, Canfield) and that's SEVEN Pac-10 quarterbacks who are at the very least competent. That's the most depth the conference has shown at the quarterback stable this decade.
Compare it to the Pac-10 QBs we saw last season: Sanchez was pretty good but still developing, Willie Tuitama had his ups and downs, Masoli was in his first year escaping the shadow of Dixon, Lyle Moevao had his moments although he was carried by the Rodgers brothers, Rudy Carpenter was digesting turf thanks to his awesome offensive line, the Kevin Craft Interception Show missed no stops, Tavita Pritchard was a placeholder, the Washington/Wazzu quarterbacks we faced were bad, bad, bad.
Masoli has quietly worked his way back to a solid 60% completion percentage. Canfield and Foles are horrifyingly good at finding their receivers, hovering at 70% and putting them in the top seven in the conference. Luck isn't as accurate, but he throws touchdowns and not many picks (kind of like Riley-lite). Locker is the most dangerous player in the Pac-10 if he faces a defense that gives him cushion. And Barkley is only going to get better.
They're so good that they're not just beating Cal's zones, they're beating Cal on man. Tuel's two touchdown throws came against man coverage, where he fit that ball in just the right place for the receiver to get it and the defender had no chance to play the ball. Kevin Prince had excellent throws that burned a few guys with excellent man coverage too. Surprisingly, they played pretty well against Barkley after spotting the Trojans ten points. Of course the big fail was Masoli where the Bears played mostly zone, but even when they played man they got beat.
Now the solution would be to be aggressive in the pass rush and send more guys. But who? Cal's linebackers haven't shown they're able to speed their way. Not many of these guys have the ability to stunt or delay the way our group did last year--maybe Alualu, but again he's facing constant double teams. Plus with the quarterbacks being better this season, sending more guys leaves the Bears vulnerable to a precise pass going for six.
So pick your poison. So pick your poison. Do you key in on stopping the run and not allowing big plays and risk giving up easier underneath throws, or gamble with a pass rush or man coverage and take the risk of quarterbacks connecting on long strikes? This is the quandary Gregory is in, and we’ll find out what he comes up with these next few weeks. (HT Hydro for the rephrase)
Is Cal's defense underachieving, overachieving, or performing as expected?
Reactions to defense.
Then came the part no one expected. When Tedford had finished dousing his defenders in lighter fluid, linebacker Steve Fanua set them on fire. "He's a young buck, a redshirt freshman," Jordan said, smiling. "He has fire in his veins. He gave us a nice little talk." And this was received how? "That only amps you up more," Jordan said. "Here's a guy, barely 18 years old, letting us know what this means for him. He's a young kid. He's hungry." So was Cal's defense when it returned to the field. Jordan recorded two of his two-and-a-half sacks, and three of his six tackles in the second half. One sack defused Washington State's first drive after the intermission. Another, coming on fourth-and-10, ended a Cougars drive at the Cal 18.
Then came the part no one expected. When Tedford had finished dousing his defenders in lighter fluid, linebacker Steve Fanua set them on fire.
"He's a young buck, a redshirt freshman," Jordan said, smiling. "He has fire in his veins. He gave us a nice little talk."
And this was received how?
"That only amps you up more," Jordan said. "Here's a guy, barely 18 years old, letting us know what this means for him. He's a young kid. He's hungry."
So was Cal's defense when it returned to the field. Jordan recorded two of his two-and-a-half sacks, and three of his six tackles in the second half. One sack defused Washington State's first drive after the intermission. Another, coming on fourth-and-10, ended a Cougars drive at the Cal 18.
One of the points emphasized was tackling.
Arguably the most noticeable player guilty of missed tackles was cornerback Darian Hagan. Despite coming off one of his best performances ever last week against UCLA, Hagan struggled to make several key tackles in the open field and gave up a couple big passing plays against WSU.
"He needs to be more consistent, no question about it," Gregory said. "Very poor game today, and we just got to keep working with these kids to grow and mature."