Wait . . . a Mike Leach team with a defense that has been outperforming the offense? A Mike Leach team that won a game without scoring an offensive touchdown? Yup. That happened. How?
Well, it helps to have seven upperclassmen. That and a few sophomores who had to take their lumps as freshmen last year are now more experienced. Essentially, every single starter on defense was either a starter or a significant contributor last year, and it's hard to pick out a player who really shouldn't be on the field, either because of a lack of talent or a lack of experience/readiness. When was the last time you could say that about the Cougars?
Second year (in Pullman) defensive coordinator Mike Breske's 3-4 scheme has clearly made progress. If you're looking for more info on how it works in an ideal world, check out this Cougcenter article that has links to articles and videos that break it down quite well. Suffice to say that Cal's offensive line needs to be ready to pick up blitzers from multiple positions and multiple angles. Let's learn about who those guys might be.
Defensive Line: Jr. DE Kalafitoni Pole; Sr. NT Ioane Gauta; So. DE Xavier Cooper
Cooper and Guata are both returning starters, while Pole saw more limited action in 2012 but is still reasonably seasoned. Guata is probably the best of the three lineman, since he manages to put up decently disruptive stats despite playing in the middle. Cooper did receive all-conference honors last year, so he shouldn't be ignored. But, like a good 3-4, these guys are supposed to occupy blockers for blitzing linebackers. Hopefully our line can handle these guys without needing to double team often - that's something to keep an eye on early in the game.
Heave a sigh of relief that Travis Long and his 9.5 sacks and 61 tackles as a DS have departed to the Eagles. Kalafitoni Pole is his replacement and so far he hasn't had a strong impact on games, at least in terms of concrete numbers.
Monroe, Sagote and Cohen will all fill up the stat sheet in terms of tackles. In a traditional 3-4 you would expect the outside linebackers to be more disruptive in the backfield. But in this case, Coen and Monroe combined for 20 tackles for loss and 8.5 this year, which tells you that the Cougars will send whichever player they think can get to the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Cal's interior line will very likely be tested tomorrow.
Secondary: Sr. CB Damante Horton; Sr. SS Deone Bucannon; So. FS Taylor Taliulu; Sr. CB Nolan Washington
Bucannon is probably the single best player on the defense - a heavy hitter who attacks the ball and makes plenty of tackles in the secondary and in run support. Horton was (from the perspective of a Cal fan, at least) a relatively unknown part time player last year but burst into the collective consciousness of Pac-12 fans with two huge, instinctive interceptions against USC that complete changed the game at the ends of both halves.
Washington and Taliulu are both full time starters after spot starts last year, and that inexperience showed against Stanford. Cal will need to pick on both this week. Look for true freshman Daquawn Brown if they struggle or if Wazzu wants to show a nickel package.
2013 So Far
5.97 yards/play allowed in a 31-24 loss at Auburn
3.06 yards/play allowed in a 10-7 win at USC
3.42 yards/play allowed in a 48-10 win vs. Southern Utah
3.42 yards/play allowed in a 42-0 win vs. Idaho
8.24 yards/play allowed in a 55-17 loss to Stanford
Now is an opportunity to laugh at USC for managing less yards/play against Washington State than either Southern Utah OR Idaho.
Against the Run
2012: 4.00 yards allowed/attempt, 52nd in the nation
2013: 3.91 yards allowed/attempt, 54th in the nation
Probably the single biggest improvement under the Leach era has been turning a run defense that was just awful under Paul Wulff into an average unit. Much of that is due to the gradual growth of Washington State's linebacker core, and now that the group has both decent talent and plenty of experience, they'll have to look to continue improving this year. Obviously, Stanford did well on the ground, but that's not much of a knock since they do that to pretty much everybody.
Against the Pass
2012: 7.7 yards allowed/attempt, 90th in the nation
2013: 6.4 yards allowed/attempt, 45th in the nation
At first glance, it looks like Washington State's pass defense has taken a solid step forward. But it's worth noting that the only particularly good passing offense the Cougars have faced is Stanford. Jeff Nusser at Cougcenter talked specifically about what went wrong in the secondary against Stanford, and how critical that unit will be against Cal.
The good news for Washington State is that, again, they have some good linebackers who can do well in coverage. The bad news is that there are still some major concerns in the secondary. Passing over the middle might be tough, but I think Cal can take advantage on the sidelines and potentially deep.
S&P STATS, 2013
For the first time this year I'm using 2013 S&P stats from football outsiders, and it's worth noting that these stats are subject to the same problems as standard stats so early in the season. Teams haven't played enough games to be well connected yet, and unusual results can have a big impact.
So far, the stats basically say that Washington State is an average defense across the board, which is probably more or less accurate. I think it's pretty clear, based on the USC result by itself, that Washington State is a team that can no longer be 'out-athleted' with ease. This is a good, solid defense and it requires a good, solid scheme to beat. Hopefully that's what Cal has.
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.
2012: 21 forced turnovers, 69th in the nation (6 fumbles, 15 interceptions)
2013: 9 forced turnovers, 30th in the nation (2 fumbles, 7 interceptions)
The Cougs have actually been pretty good over the last year and a half at grabbing interceptions, but they haven't had much luck forcing fumbles, and have had even less luck recovering them. Let's hope for not-monsoon weather. That's not too much to ask, is it?
2012: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 45.36, 102nd in the nation
2013: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 30.67, 24th in the nation
I don't expect Washington State to keep up that kind of effort on 3rd downs - hopefully that's an area of regression. It should be a key battle tomorrow, as I expect the Bear Raid should be able to complete plenty of short passes on standard downs.
2012: Opponent scoring percentage of 76.8%, 26th in the nation
2013: Opponent scoring percentage of 66.7%, 12th in the nation
2012: Opponent touchdown percentage of 57.14%, 47th in the nation
2013: Opponent touchdown percentage of 33.3%, 7th in the nation
Perhaps the shocking part here isn't how good Washington State has been in the red zone - it's how few red zone attempts they have allowed. Although to be fair, Stanford scored 5 touchdowns of 22 yards or longer last week. Early season stats are so screwy.
Washington State's defense isn't good enough to take everything away from a team. Against Stanford, they tried to take away the run and the Cardinal proceeded to throw the ball . . . then ran it anyway when the game got out of hand and the Cougars were worn down. Against USC, the Cougars tried to take away the run, but USC could not throw the ball.
Against Cal, I would expect Washington State to try to take away the pass. Press our receivers, flood passing lanes, disguise coverages, etc. etc. And they just might have the talent and personnel to do it, especially if Cal isn't sharp or Goff is still rattled. The question is if Cal can run the ball well enough to keep the defense honest. Brendan Bigelow won't be wearing a brace, and Daniel Lasco continues to look solid. Might the running game be ready for a breakout performance? That would go a long long way to winning a game that most view as essentially a toss up.
It is worth noting that Washington State hasn't played a team like Cal yet. USC and Stanford quite obviously run a pro-style offense, and although Gus Malzahn and Auburn run a hurry-up spread, it's much more run focused than Cal has shown this year. Cal will likely be testing the Washington State secondary in a way they haven't quite been tested this year. Can the Bears exploit some of the same deficiencies that Stanford found last week? Is their secondary ready to defend 60 passes? If their starters are struggling, can they possibly have the depth to handle four solid wideouts on every possession?
These are the relevant questions. I think if Jared Goff plays like he did the first three games of the year, Cal should move the ball and score points at least as well as they did against Northwestern and Ohio State. Unfortunately, against a solid front seven, the running game could very well struggle. It's not fair to again rest the game mostly on the right arm of Jared Goff, but such are the trials of a young team under a new regime. Bombs away!