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Previewing the Washington defense

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Can Cal continue to put up wild and crazy offensive numbers? It all depends on how much resistance a rather mysterious Washington defense puts up.

Hey, it's that guy that we obsess over who's probably leaving for the NFL in January anyway.
Hey, it's that guy that we obsess over who's probably leaving for the NFL in January anyway.
Otto Greule Jr

Last year, Washington's defense was quietly a very good unit under Chris Wilcox, who I assume is now doing great things with superior talent at USC. I haven't really checked yet.

Of course, now Chris Petersen is in charge in Seattle, and he brought with him defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. Kwiatkowski took over as defensive coordinator in 2010 and produced three straight excellent defenses during Boise St.'s golden era. His 2013 squad fell off significantly, probably because that defense lost 4 starters to the NFL draft. With access to higher level recruits, Washington fans will no doubt hope he can produce even better defenses than he did when Boise St. was a perennial BCS gate-crasher.

He has talent. You can find mock drafts that predict Washington will have three defensive players taken in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft - one player from each level of the defense. The question is if those players have enough talent and experience around them to stop elite offenses.

Prior to the season he did an interview with the Seattle Times that gives a good sense of what he wants to do:

You've said your defensive schemes won't be much different from what the Huskies have been running the past couple seasons. Do you expect that to help in the transition with the players, or do you plan to throw a lot of new wrinkles at them right away?

We've been pretty multiple (in coverages). We'll play quarters, we'll play Cover 3, we'll play man-free, we'll max cover with a three-man rush. And then we have pressures (blitzes). All the concepts are similar, but the terminology that we're comfortable with will be new for the guys. Some of it will be the same, but most of it will be different.

If this is what Washington has managed to install, then it's up to Cal's offensive line and Jared Goff's game-reading skills to unlock the looks Kwiatkowski will throw at them.

Starters

DE: Sr. Andrew Hudson ; DT: Sr. Evan Hudson ; NT: Sr. Danny Shelton ; BUCK: Sr. Hau'oli Kikaha

Danny Shelton is almost certainly the best interior lineman Cal has faced so far this year, and perhaps the best for the rest of the year. In all of my years of previewing defenses (which, to be fair, has only been like 3 years) I have never seen an interior lineman leading a team in tackles. Hell, I've never seen a lineman lead a team in tackles, period. Shelton has 47, including 10 tackles for loss and SEVEN(!) sacks. That's, like, Ndamukong Suh level production. It makes me think that UW is deploying him at end more often than his position indicates, although I haven't reviewed any film to get a good sense.

Compared to Shelton, Kikaha is more of a pass rush specialist. He's really damned good at it, with 7 sacks of his own. The Hudson brothers (not actual brothers) are comparatively less productive, but are solid players. Evan Hudson is the likely lineman to leave the field if/when UW decides to use a 3 man front.

We'll discuss more below, but UW's eyepopping sack numbers may potentially be impacted by facing weak offenses. For what it's worth, here's when the sacks were collected:

vs. Hawaii: 3
vs. E. Washington: 6
vs. Georgia St.: 4
vs. Illinois: 6
vs. Stanford: 1

LB: Sr. John Timu ; LB: Jr. Shaq Thompson ; LB: Jr. Travis Feeney

Timu and Thompson are a talented, experienced combo, strong against both the run and the pass. Feeney is the linebacker most like to head to the sidelines when UW goes to nickel formations, although when you have a converted safety as an every down linebacker that might be less of a concern.

I've seen speculation from Washington fans that Shaq will shift back to playing safety as a counter to Cal's passing attack. I think it would make sense to keep him at linebacker, and just count on his history and instincts as a safety to serve him in covering underneath routes. It's going to be interesting to pick out where he is to start plays, and where he lines up will be a good indicator of how UW wants to attack Cal's offense.

CB: Jr. Marcus Peters ; S: So. Kevin King OR So. Trevor Walker ; S: Fr. Budda Baker ; CB: Fr. Sydney Jones

Peters is the unquestioned star and one of the better ball hawks in the country. Everything else is question marks. Kevin King is dealing with illness but is expected to start over Trevor Walker, who will likely see plenty of the field either as a nickle back or as depth to give other players breathers. Baker and Jones are both true freshmen, and boy am I guessing UW fans are happy with Steve Sarkisian for getting out of town knowing that he left the Huskies with no secondary depth.

Marcus Peters is the only UW DB that scares me. Cal shouldn't need to throw his way very often, and I fully expect them to target Jones, who has zero passes broken up, passes defended, or interceptions so far this year. Even if Jones can hold his own, UW's secondary depth is extremely suspect and was only really tested against Eastern Washington. I know we all love a balanced Bear Raid, but this is a game to air it out.

Season So Far

4.4 yards allowed/play in a 17-16 win over Hawaii
7.0 yards allowed/play in a 59-52 win over Eastern Washington
6.3 yards allowed/play in a 44-19 win over Illinois
3.6 yards allowed/play in a 45-14 win over Georgia State
5.5 yards allowed/play in a 20-13 loss to Stanford

Here is a list of FBS teams that have been beaten by Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois and Georgia State:

  • Western Kentucky (Illinois at home by 8 points)
  • Texas St. (Illinois at home by 8 points)

Washington has beaten nobody. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that their best win is over Eastern Washington. Their best performance might have been a loss to Stanford at home, in which Stanford literally doubled UW's yardage output and did everything in their power to make the final score look nice.

This isn't to say that Washington is awful. It's mostly to say that we just don't know for lack of evidence. They have faced one competent offense, and allowed 52 points*, so that's probably not the best indicator for them. But it was only one game, and this season has clearly proven that one game samples are . . . misleading.

The defensive performance against Eastern Washington was bad for obvious reasons, and the Huskies should have probably held down Illinois a bit more (although extensive garbage time may have been a factor). Mostly, though, this is a unit that has been meaningfully challenged once.

*Star CB Marcus Peters was suspended for much of the E. Washington game. How much that impacted UW I don't know, but I'm sure it didn't help. I encourage him to throw a sideline tantrum against Cal.

Against the pass

2013: 5.8 yards/attempt allowed, 7th in the country
2014: 7.5 yards/attempt allowed, 86th in the country

That is a precipitous decline, and should be disturbing to Washington fans knowing that the Huskies have yet to face one of the elite Pac-12 quarterbacks. Of course, it's worth noting that Washington has a ferocious pass rush (at least, against teams like Hawaii and Eastern Washington, and maybe against everybody) and sack yardage isn't factored into the number above.

Still, this is a unit performing like they lost three excellent senior starters and are learning a new scheme under new coaches. I think the new starters are talented - but I also think Wazzu's new secondary starters are talented, but that didn't stop Cal from exploiting their inexperience. If Cal can keep Goff on his feet, there should be open receivers.

Against the run

2013: 4.13 yards/attempt allowed, 57th in the country
2014: 3.25 yards/attempt allowed, 26th in the country

I haven't taken a close look at every team in the conference, but if forced I'd say that Washington has the 2nd best front seven defensive talent in the Pac-12 after Stanford. That's reflected in good stats against the run, although considering the competition you might expect the number to be a bit lower.

As we've seen over the last few weeks, the key isn't that Cal dominates on the ground. They just need to do well enough to keep the defense honest. I think UW's run defense is good, but not so good that they can shut down Lasco with only 5 guys in the box.

Advanced stats

2013 S&P: 20th in the country
2014 S&P: 88th in the country

2013 FEI: 24th in the country
2014 FEI: 21st in the country (unadjusted for schedule strength)

In however many years writing this column I have never seen such a big difference between the two rating systems. The presumptive reason? S&P already includes a schedule strength modifier, and Washington's schedule (as noted above) has been bad - particularly on offense. S&P's ranking system says that Washington has faced offenses ranked 57th (Illinois), 75th (Stanford), 103rd (Georgia St.), 126th (Hawaii). Seriously, Eastern Washington is the best offense Washington has seen this year, and the season is almost half over!

Again, this isn't to say that Cal is destined to tear Washington apart. UW has mostly done a good job holding down the FBS teams they have faced, you can only play the team that lines up in front of you, etc. etc. But we've also seen limited evidence that Washington can stop Cal, and the Bear raid has performed at a level that I'm inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Turnovers

2013: 23 forced turnovers (16 interceptions, 7 fumbles), 47th in the country
2014: 12 forced turnovers (5 interceptions, 7 fumbles), 17th in the country

You're seeing the Shaq Thompson/Marcus Peters effect. Both are explosive, athletic players who attack the ball, whether it's in the air or in the arms of a ball carrier. Granted, the offenses UW has faced probably aren't great at protecting the ball. Still, when you have a defense with playmakers like Thompson and Peters, and defensive linemen who can get sacks and knock the ball away from the quarterback, turnovers can be an issue. If Cal can limit UW to 1 or fewer turnovers that would be a solid achievement.

Conclusions

At the risk of oversimplifying things, I think Cal's ability to score comes down to one simple question: Can Cal's offensive line keep Shelton, Kikaha, and any other UW pass rushers away from Jared Goff? If Goff stays upright, Cal will score many points - probably too many for UW's offense to match.

But just one sack is usually enough to kill a drive, so if UW gets 3 or 4 or 5, the Bear Raid will stall often enough that Cal's defense will get burned. The strength of Cal's offense has been the ability of the offensive line to give Goff enough time to go deep. It's the reason Cal is the statistically most explosive offense in the country. But this is almost certainly the best pass rush Cal has faced so far this year.

Certainly, there are other issues. Can Cal protect the ball against a team that has the ability to force turnovers? Can the offense be a bit more balanced? Will Cal actually need to drop 50 against a weaker offense than Washington State or Arizona?

But the line battle will almost certainly be decisive, and cannot easily be predicted either way. If the line does a great job in pass protection, I think Cal might win this game in a fashion that doesn't leave us clutching our chests. If Goff's jersey gets dirty, it might be a very sour homecoming indeed.