Before the raid: Previewing the Washington defense

NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO - Otto Greule Jr

Can the Cal offense score enough to end their Sark losing streak? Man, how awesome would it be if this game became our 2012 UCLA game?

I'll admit, it gets harder and harder to put a ton of time into these previews. Last week I said that Oregon State was referendum on the offense, and Cal's offense failed miserably. Specifically, to the tune of 4.8 yards/play, four turnovers, and three first half points. Even Sonny Dykes has lost faith in his offense, as he declined to attempt 4th and 2 or shorter three times early in the game, when victory was hypothetically possible.

Whatever the reason, Cal's offense has badly regressed from early performances against non-conference opponents. Right now, it doesn't matter what defense this team faces. It's about fixing what's going wrong on the Cal side of the line of scrimmage. Maybe Zach Kline will help do that. Maybe not. But with an offensive line that has been put through a blender, it might not matter.

So yeah, Washington probably has a pretty good defense, no matter what happened in the desert last week. It doesn't feel like a relevant detail. Everybody has a pretty good defense, and Cal is letting them dictate what happens on the field.

Personnel

Defensive Line: Jr. DE Hau'oli Kikaha; Jr. DT Evan Hudson; Jr. NT Danny Shelton; So. RE Cory Littleton

Kikaha is UW's best pass rusher and most disruptive force on the line. Shelton is the better interior lineman and also has a propensity to block kicks. Look for Josh Shirley, a reserve pass rush specialist who might get more time than usual against Cal's pass happy attack.

Linebackers: Sr. LB Princeton Fuimaono; Jr. LB John Timu; So LB Shaq Thompson

Conceptually, I like the idea of having Shaq play linebacker. He has the size, athleticism, and tackling ability to play linebacker, and it allows flexibility against the many pass happy Pac-12 offenses to have a linebacker with presumably great coverage skills. It's like you can switch between the base defense and a nickel package without actually changing personnel!

Except it doesn't seem to be working all that great. True, Shaq has a bunch of tackles, but he's not really making any big plays. And for a player with his talent, with a year of experience already under his belt, playing closer to the line, it seems like he should be making big plays. No interceptions, no forced fumbles, only half a sack.

Anyway. Timu and Fuimaono are producing at similar levels as Thompson - lots of tackles, but not many for a loss and minimal forced turnovers.

Secondary: So. CB Marcus Peters; Sr. S Will Shamburger; Sr. S Sean Parker; Sr. CB Gregory Ducre

The heart of the team. Their 5th defensive back (Tre Watson) is a senior as well, and the combination of tons of experience, solid talent, and another year under Justin Wilcox has produced a secondary that does pretty much everything well. Parker is probably the single best player, but their aren't any weak links.

Peters (a 3 star CB out of Oakland that was offered by nearly every Pac-12 program but Cal, sigh) has continued to play excellently after winning the starting job last year around mid-season. Ducre isn't as good, but is still a solid player.

This Year

3.9 yards/play allowed in a 38-6 win over Boise St.
4.5 yards/play allowed in a 34-24 win over Illinois
2.6 yards/play allowed in a 56-0 win over Idaho St.
3.7 yards/play allowed in a 31-13 win over Arizona
4.6 yards/play allowed in a 31-28 loss to Stanford
7.8 yards/play allowed in a 45-24 loss to Oregon
6.3 yards/play allowed in a 53-24 loss to Arizona State

What you have here are five really excellent defensive performances, and then Oregon being Oregon.

That doesn't really explain what happened against Arizona State. While the Sun Devils do have an excellent offense, they shouldn't have been able to run up 53 points on the Huskies. And they did it mostly by destroying UW on the ground. So while I'd like to say that recent performances have shown that the Husky defense is vulnerable . . . well, they're vulnerable to Marcus Mariota and to strong rushing attacks. Cal doesn't have either of those things at the moment.

Against the Run

4.33 yards allowed/attempt, 75th in the nation

I bet this number looked a lot better before ASU ran the ball 51 times for 6.5 yards a pop. Frankly, this number is heavily influenced by UW's schedule, which of course has included Stanford and Oregon, two teams that are pretty damned good at running the ball.

Against the Pass

5.7 yards allowed/attempt, 7th in the nation

Wow. True, it helps to have gotten B.J. Denker at his worst and have a non-conference slate with some iffy passing attacks. But still. Maybe Shaq doesn't have many big plays because nobody dares throw the ball in his direction.

Advanced Stats

S&P 2013

Total Defense

Standard Downs

Passing Downs

Run Defense

Pass Defense

National Rank

17

6

12

16

4

FEI+ total defensive efficiency rank: 26th in the nation

Scary stuff. The advanced stats basically say, "Yeah, UW got torched a few times . . . against one of the toughest three game stretches of opposing offenses the Pac-12 schedule makers could dream up."

Stats of Dubious Value

As a reminder: Below are stats that, while interesting, may have little if any predictive value on what will occur over the course of 80-100 offensive snaps tomorrow.

Turnovers

10 forced turnovers, 75th in the nation (2 fumbles, 8 interceptions)

So, I suppose this isn't really a surprise . . . but Cal leads the country in most fumbles (20) and most fumbles lost (12). SURPRISE! The Bears are also last in turnover margin amongst major conference teams. If Zach Kline starts, would that improve Cal's hypothetical ball security? Your best guess is as good as mine.

3rd Down

Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 39.5%, 65th in the nation

Considering Washington's effectiveness against the pass and Cal's complete inability to set up 3rd and shorts, I would be pretty OK if we managed to convert 40% of our 3rd downs.

Red Zone

Opponent scoring percentage of 83.33%, 61st in the nation
Opponent touchdown percentage of 56.67%, 48th in the nation

In a continuing theme, I'm more interested this week in talking about what Cal does rather than the opponent. Cal actually has more red zone possessions than the average FBS offense, but oh that touchdown conversion rate of 44%. It's when the lack of a credible running game really kills, because every single passing lane is just flooded with bodies.

Conclusions

Here's a simple way to look at things: Cal has already played two of the three worst defenses on their conference schedule, and at home. Yup, Washington State and Oregon State (the 3rd, as I'm sure you would guess, is Colorado). And Cal struggled badly to score against both teams. So expecting a better outcome on the road against a better unit . . . well, weird things happen, but that doesn't make it wise to expect it to happen.

Maybe offensive line musical chairs will somehow pay dividends. Maybe Zach Kline is ready for a big game. Maybe all of the unforced errors that don't really have to do with the opponent (like, just randomly fumbling with no or minimal contact) will stop happening.

Being negative isn't my style. Fandom is supposed to be fun, after all. But realism is important to. This one could be ugly.

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