Cal Football: Previewing the UW Huskies Defense

KEENAN! ALLEN!


Ah Husky Stadium. A place of nightmares and despair. It's a place where the tears of Cal faithful stain remote areas of the rickety stands and the ghosts of broken Golden Bear dreams still weep in the shadows. Thank goodness it's getting torn down. If there's any school over the past two years to whom we owe a good beat-down, the Washing Huskies have to be in the mix.
With the departure of Jake Locker, their stalwart defense was supposed to hold the line until new QB Nick(ed) Keith Price could get his feet wet. After all, this is the same smothering defense that helped the Huskies end 2010 with a 4-game winning streak, including a dominating bowl win over Nebraska where they held the Cornhuskers to only 189 total yards of offense.
Things haven't exactly gone as planned, however. Let's take a closer look at the UW defense after the jump:

The stats:  

The numbers here are particularly ugly. Study these for too long and it's better than beer goggles for making the other Kardashian sister start to look less... like a life-crushing mistake.
36.6 points per game = Last in the Pac-12, 107th nationally.
320.33 passing yards given up per game = last in the Pac-12, 115th nationally.
452 total yards given up per game = 11th in the Pac-12 (Way to go!), 108th nationally.

But do the numbers tell the whole story?


I suppose you could point to the passing yardage totals as being skewed from playing two pass-happy teams. (Eastern Washington and Hawaii combined for 117 attempts) Let's just ignore the fact that EWU and UH are a combined 1-5 on the year and haven't put up the same numbers since.

But for balance, the Huskies also managed to give up 309 yards on the ground to Nebraska and allowed their side-armed, wounded-duck thrower QB to light them up for another 155 through the air. (often for big plays) To be fair, the 51 points scored by the Cornhuskers can be partially explained by a combination of turnovers, special teams gaffes, and lots of short fields.  Highlights from that game can be found here and here.

Could it be that Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt shaved his head a little too close during the off-season and the Dawg simply aren't that good on defense this year? Or is this a talented group who have simply under-performed and laid a few eggs early in the season? (Think 2010 Cal vs. 'sc...'furd...okay, stop now. Seriously.)  My worry closet suspects more of the latter than the former, quite honestly.

And Old Blues everywhere are now expecting them to shut us out...

Personnel:


Key Players:

In theory, the Huskies have a star player at each level of their defense. Senior DT Alameda Ta'amu almost single-handedly destroyed Nebraska in last year's Holiday Bowl and has been touted as the best interior lineman in the conference. Senior MLB Cort Dennison is their version of Mike Mohammed - fast, savvy, and always around the ball. He was Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week last week. Junior CB Desmond Trufant is their playmaker in the secondary. He clinched their win over EW with a last second interception and was Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week during the first week of the season.


Dline:
 

Projected Starters:

DE:  Talia Crichton, Jr, 6'3, 246 lbs

DT:  Everrette Thompson, Sr, 6'6, 244 lbs

DT:  Alameda Ta'amu, Sr, 6'3, 800 lbs

DE:  Hau'oli Jamora, So, 6'2, 238 lbs

 

Although he has size, strength, and a decent burst, Alameda Ta'amu has been greatly limited by a broken hand suffered in training camp. He hasn't been nearly the same player that he was at the end of last year. The Bears are very fortunate that tackles Semisi Tokolahi and Sione Potoa'e are still out with injuries.  UW has been forced to move DE Everrette Thompson inside, although he'll still line up at end on passing downs. Here's a scary fact - he's already blocked two PAT's this year. Hau'oli Jamora is their best pass-rushing defensive end. He's been somewhat inconsistent this year as has new starter Talia Crichton. They have talented depth, but they're all very young and their inexperience has been exposed on the field.  Although RS Fr Josh Shirley was drawing rave reviews as their designated pass-rusher in camp, his production has been uneven.  With Tokolahi and Potoa'e out, this is a fast line, but a light one.  Whether or not the Bears have enough heft up front to take advantage is the big question.

Linebacker:  

Projected Starters:

OLB:  Princeton Fuimano, So, 6'0, 201 lbs

MBL:  Cort Dennision, Sr, 6'1, 236 lbs

OLB:  John Timu, Fr, 6'1, 225 lbs

Although Cort Dennison has been rock solid, they have two young players on the outside in Princeton Fuimaono(So), and John Timu(Fr). It's very similar to Cal in '09 where we had to replace several departed senior linebackers. The new guys might be more athletic, but they're still much slower with their reads and prone to execution errors.  As an interesting coaching side note, Nick Holt has chosen to throw his young guys into the fire.  This is in stark contract to Clancy Pendergast's more measured approach with selectively putting in his young 'backers for specific situations.  It's hard to say which approach is better, but I'm really glad we're not playing the Dawgs in December this year.


Defensive Back:  

Projected Starters:

CB:  Desmond Trufant, Jr, 6'0, 177 lbs

S:  Justin Glenn, Jr, 5'11, 203 lbs  or Nate Fellner, So, 6'1, 201 lbs (recovering from injury)

S:  Sean Parker, So, 5'10, 200 lbs

CB:  Quinton Richardson, Sr, 6'0, 200 lbs

Nickel CB:  Gregory Ducre, So, 5'10, 170 lbs

Trufant is dangerous as a ball-hawking cover corner. Their other corner, Quentin Richardson(Sr) has plenty of experience, but appears to still be slowed by a high ankle sprain suffered at the end of training camp. They have a solid nickel back in Greg Ducre, but depth behind these three is questionable. At safety, they're also somewhat inexperienced with a new starter in Sean Parker(Fr).  Justin Glenn(Jr) did have some starts as a frosh, but normally would be backing up Nate Fellner(so.)  They do have more depth here, but most of it is also somewhat young.  Although both starting corners have decent size, they were man-handled last week by Nebraska's wide receivers and didn't provide much run support on outside runs.  


Scheme:
Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt came over from 'sc with Coach Sarkisian. He likes to run an aggressive 4-3. On early downs, he plays a lot of Cover 1(man outside) with some disguised Cover 3(zone). This is the exact same coverage switch that fooled Maynard into his pick-six against Presbyterian. They tend to stack the box with one LB on the line of scrimmage, one safety up close in run support, and one safety left as deep centerfield. If they get you in third and long, they like to play coverage with only rushing 3 or 4 and dropping the rest into a classic Cover 2. Holt will mix things up with a variety of blitzes; he'll send anyone from any position on the field. However, like we've seen with Cal last year, this aggressive defense can lead to feast or famine results.

Strengths:   Even with a broken hand, it's awfully hard to move Ta'amu in the middle of that line, especially with Dennison right behind him. Runs up the middle could be tough sledding. Although inexperienced, they have decent speed at DE, OLB and Safety. If they can get you into a predictable down/distance where they just let their athletes tee off and run at the QB, that could be an issue.

Weaknesses:   Despite their star players, the fact remains that UW has been extremely poor on 3rd downs and in the red zone. Their biggest Achilles heels has been their young OLBs. Almost all of Nebraska's rushing yardage came from simple pitch plays around the edges. Time and time again, the OLBs got caught up in the wash, took bad angles, or lost contain. They also showed a vulnerability to being gashed by the zone-read. If the game had been closer, the Cornhuskers could have run that a lot more often because it was money each time. These same OLBs have had their issues in coverage, particularly on 3rd downs where Holt likes to go with a Cover 2 zone.
Weakness #2 has been the play of their secondary. Although Trufant has a knack for the big play, Richardson might legally need to change his name to "Pop Tart" because he keeps getting burnt. (Naturally, this is the week he'll get a pick-six, fumble recovery, and multiple sacks.)  Their safeties have been among the team leaders in tackles, but have also been prone to breakdowns in coverage.

The Game Plans:


UW:  I expect Holt to stack the box, try to stuff the run, and force Maynard to beat him through the air. He'll try to bait Maynard into throwing into coverage and mix up some pressure packages against our questionable Oline. No real secret here - that's been the book on beating Cal the last several years. Knowing that they struggled defending the edges, and knowing that we know, I'd would expect that to be a major point of emphasis in practice. Still, even with the best schemes, it's up to the players to execute. Last week, the coaches warned their players to be looking for a play-action deep ball early...and they still gave up a 50+ yard touchdown on the 3rd play of the game.

Cal:  Until proven otherwise, I'd expect UW to be vulnerable on the edges, in the flats, and in the shorter/intermediate routes. I'd throw plenty of outside zone runs and pitches, sprinkle in some zone read, and perhaps a fly sweep or reverse to keep them guessing. In the passing game, using our tight ends and fullback against their OLBs should be in our favor and might slow down their pass rush. If our Oline holds up, I really like either KA or Jones against Richardson. I'd pick on him mercilessly until UW is forced to give him safety help, then I'd attack the open middle of the field. Similar to the way we tried to slow down Fresno State's aggressive defense, I expect to see plenty of quick passes early to try to set them up for deeper throws. We'll take advantage of Maynard's mobility with play-action and designed roll-outs. And to press our advantage against their injured DB and questionable secondary depth, we'll alternate with a lot of spread formations. The big question mark here is execution. It may be a bit much to expect all the drops and penalties to miraculously go away. But, it would be nice to see a favorable trend towards cleaning these areas up.

 

Key Matchups:


1) Our Oline against their Dline, especially in the interior. Both Schwenke and Cheadle have had their issues this year.  Ta'amu will be by far the toughest DT that we've seen thus far.  Last year, our tackles were susceptible to fast DEs speed-rushing around the edges.  It's a good thing that we've solved that this year with an innovative face-mask-grab-hold-pull technique....Um...Right...


2) Maynard vs. Maynard. Husky Stadium can get absolutely nasty if you let the crowd go nuts and let their defense feed off the energy. This would be a great week to ditch the pick-a-game habit and unleash the Honey Badger poise all game long. He got away with a lot of lazy throws and poor reads against Presby. Despite their early struggles, UW has the athletes to make him pay if he locks on to too many of his primary receivers.  

 

3) Tedford vs. Holt. Normally, I'd score this one as a significant edge for Jeff Tedford. Although Holt has re-energized the UW defense since his arrival and has managed to call his share of good games, his units are also prone to some rather incredible mental errors. Danny "I'm really a waterboy" Sullivan's last-play walk-off TD for ASU against a prevent defense comes to mind. Like many coordinators, the brilliance of Holt's schemes seems heavily dependent on his personnel - when he can stuff the run and pressure the passer with just his Dline, he's pretty tough. Tedford, on the other hand, has shown a knack in the past for adapting his game plans to take advantage of his players' particular strengths.  However, even the best play-calling can't help you if your guys are killing drives with self-inflicted wounds.

 

Final Overview:


Although we can arm-chair this one to death with all the possible strategies, schemes, and play-calls, this one is going to come down to which unit executes better; particularly in the trenches. Instead of looking at which side makes the big plays, it may be more important to see which team makes fewer mistakes. As will be the theme all year, I think the difference between palms of victory and face palms will depend heavily on our offensive line's performance.  

The Old Blue in me is screaming, "Danger!  Danger!  Doom!  UW has experience and plenty of talent.  At home, their D should be fired up and potent.  So what if the stats indicate they couldn't stop Betty White running the zone-read or Stephen Hawking on the skinny post?!??!"

Honestly, if we weren't Cal fans, wouldn't we cackling with glee at the number of different ways that Coach Tedford is going drink Nick Holt's milkshake?

But before you chalk this one up as a should-win, keep in mind that ManBearCal (uber-analyst, beleaguered spouse, Doombringer) thinks that this will be the best offense we've faced all year.  According to his excellent review of UW's offense, the Huskies have a diverse and potent attack.  

It has all the makings of another Pac-12 shoot-out.  Let's hope our guys come loaded for Dawg.

Go Bears!

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