Last year Washington's defense was pretty bad, culminating in their famous 67-56 loss to RGIII and Baylor. So Washington fired everybody on that side of the ball and pillaged the rest of the country. If I recall correctly, the moves were met with indifference around these parts.
Justin Wilcox would almost certainly say that he doesn't have Washington's defense playing as well as he'd like, but there is no argument that he has significantly improved their performance. Last year Washington allowed 30 points or more 8 times. This year it's only happened 3 times, and two of those times were against top 10 offenses (Arizona and Oregon).
Unfortunately, Cal's offense isn't the offense of Arizona or Oregon, or even LSU. Optimism will be in short supply.
Defensive Line: Sr. DE Talia Crichton; So. NT Danny Shelton; So. DE Andrew Hudson; So. Rover Josh Shirley
The weakest unit of Washington's defense, in part because of injuries (losing Hau'oli Jamora for the season) and inexperience. Starting three sophomores is pretty intense, particularly when you consider that all three were mostly back-ups last year. Actually, considering that these guys were mostly reserves on what was an awful defense, it's to their credit that they've played as well as they have.
Creating pressure on the QB is an issue for UW's defense, but that's not as big of a problem as it could be because they have an excellent secondary.
Linebackers: Fr. LB Travis Feeney; So. LB John Timu; Jr. LB Princeton Fiumaono
Look for lots of rotation at linebacker. In addition to the three players listed above, Thomas Tutogi gets lots of playing time, so you essentially have four players rotating amongst two or three slots. Timu gets the most time (and has the most tackles) but more than most teams, the focus of Washington's offense is a quickly improving secondary.
Secondary: Jr. S Will Shamburger OR Sr. S Justin Glenn; Jr. S Sean Parker; Sr. CB Desmond Trufant; Fr. CB Marcus Peter
You'll notice the conspicuous absence of a certain relative of a former Bear that Cal fans might be inclined to have strong reactions towards. The Washington depth chart lists our favorite minor league baseballer as Washington's primary nickel defender.
That's because Washington plays lots of nickel packages. Shaq has started every single game of the season and he sees a ton of snaps. Washington typically plays with two linebackers in their nickel package. Frankly, calling Shaq a nickel back is kind of a misnomer - with the way he's been playing in run support, he's more like the rangiest linebacker you'll ever see.
Basically, Wilcox saw a roster with three safeties worth starting, so he's found a way to get all three of them on the field. And it's been working pretty well. Bully for him.
Sean Parker has really upped his game this year, turning into a hard-hitting disruptor. Desmond Trufant has a shot at earning all-conference honors at cornerback. Peters leads the team in interceptions. This is a good group.
- 327 yards allowed (5.54 yards/play) in a 21-12 win over San Diego State
- 437 yards allowed (6.15 yards/play) in a 41-3 loss to LSU
- 261 yards allowed (2.23 yards/play) in a 52-13 win over Portland State
- 235 yards allowed (2.30 yards/play) in a 17-13 win over Stanford
- 497 yards allowed (6.54 yards/play) in a 52-21 loss to Oregon
- 371 yards allowed (6.18 yards/play) in a 24-14 loss to USC
- 533 yards allowed (7.51 yards/play) in a 52-17 loss to Arizona
- 427 yards allowed (6.28 yards/play) in a 20-17 win over Oregon State
Against the Run
Now that enough games have been played, we'll be adding in some advanced stats to the equation. If you want to read up on S&P+ (and other advanced metrics), head on over to footballoutsiders.
4.81 yards allowed/attempt, 92nd in the nation
Rush defense S&P+ ranking: 23rd in the nation
As noted above, the advanced stats like UW way better than the traditional stats because Washington's schedule has been absolute hell.
Their crowning achievement was shutting down Stepfan Taylor. San Diego State and LSU both found a ton of success on the ground, but I think UW's line has improved as their younger players gained some experience. Still, I believe that the Huskies are more vulnerable against the run than the pass
Against the Pass
7.3 yards allowed/attempt, 73rd in the nation
Pass defense S&P+ ranking: 25th in the nation
I'm pretty cynical here. Despite some ugly games, I'm relatively high on what Washington's secondary is capable of. I watched them do a credible job against USC, I caught a bit of them handling Oregon State, and I watched them utterly dominate Stanford.
If you're looking for reasons to be optimistic, you'll note that six of Cal's 9 opponents are ranked in the top 30 in sacks. Washington is 101st. Zach Maynard should (I repeat, should) have more time on Friday than in any game this season other than Southern Utah. Part of the reason I'm relatively high on Washington's secondary is that they've been able to stop anybody with such a toothless pass rush.
Stats of Dubious Value
17 turnovers forced (6 fumbles, 11 interceptions), 32nd in the nation
Washington has managed quite a few interceptions, and from many different sources, and despite a poor pass rush. That's worrisome because it indicates that either Justin Wilcox does a good job of disguising his coverages or that his players are just good in coverage - or both.
Opponent conversion percentage of 37.96%, 51st in the nation
At this point, I feel like 3rd down is more about Cal than their opponent since Cal has been consistently terrible (112th in the nation) on 3rd down all year. Look for UW to double their sack total - it would only take 11!
Opponent scoring percentage of 81.48%, 63rd in the nation; Opponent touchdown percentage of 51.85%, 34th in the nation.
Another category where it seems likely that Cal will struggle regardless of opponent performance (the Bears are 116th in the country in red zone touchdown percentage.) God the offense has been depressing this year. Tangent: Cal's defense, especially considering how injured and young it has been, has really been OK this year. Not great, but OK.
The last time I wrote a 100% doom-and-gloom preview, Cal went out and stomped UCLA. There are always reasons you can conjure up for why any given team might be successful, however unlikely. Here they are for this game:
Zach Maynard is not a perfect quarterback. But, on the right day, given the right circumstances, he can play well. Facing a team that can't constantly put him on his back, Zach has one of those days. He hits Keenan for a few big plays and he doesn't throw any interceptions. Meanwhile, Cal's offensive line plays well enough against UW's still inexperience defensive line, opening up holes in the running game. Cal's backs have trouble getting past UW's talented collection of safeties for big plays, but it's enough to keep the sticks moving.
That's not a crazy thing to expect. But it isn't the most likely scenario. It's more likely that Washington's secondary forced a turnover or three. It's more likely that the occasional mistake or negative play puts Cal in 3rd and long, and Maynard won't be able to convert plays like that. It's more likely that Cal can't control the ball, allowing Washington to control field position and wear down Cal's defense.
Sometimes, sports fans, you have to go to the game hoping that the unlikely outcome happens. Hey, I just watched Barry Zito give up 1 run in his last 13.1 innings of post-season pitching. Anything is possible.