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Previewing the Northwestern defense

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Can the Cal offense start the 2014 season by lighting up the scoreboard in Evanston? A mostly veteran group of workmanlike Wildcat defenders stand in their way.

Oh please not this please god no
Oh please not this please god no
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to football, fellow degenerates! It's been more than nine months since I last previewed a defense tasked with slowing down the Bear Raid offense. Hopefully those nine months have been productive, nurturing months for Sonny Dykes and the Cal offense. Now the real push of the season begins at what we hope is the birth of a new, more successful scoring machine.

Tortured pregnancy metaphors aside, I think optimism is in order for Cal's offense. The cumulative efficiency certainly wasn't great last year, but you saw flashes of talent, flashes of execution, flashes of what the collective could accomplish in the right circumstances. With 10 returning starters and a year of practice in Sonny's scheme under their belts, improvement on some level seems virtually guaranteed.

But the question of the day is this: How much resistance will the Bears face from Northwestern? Let's find out

Starters

Defensive Line

Left DE: Jr. Deonte Gibson ; DT: Jr. CJ Robbins ; DT: So. Greg Kuhar; Right DE Jr. Dean Lowry

If you had asked Northwestern fans to pick the likely starters at defensive tackle, many likely would have tabbed Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter. But thanks largely to injury, it will be the less experienced CJ Robbins and Greg Kuhar in their place. How big a hit is that? Well, Robbins and Kuhar combined for a measly 8 tackles and .5 tackles for loss last year in limited duty.

The ends were both starters and consistent contributors last year, and both should merit occasional double teams. Lowry in particular is the danger man, but if Cal's interior linemen are unable to create space up the middle against questionable defensive tackles, then it could be another long year for the running game.

Linebackers

SAM: Jr. Drew Smith OR Sr. Jimmy Hall; MIKE: Sr. Collin Ellis; WILL: Sr. Chi Chi Ariguzo

Probably the strength of the defense. You'll remember Collin Ellis as the recipient of batted-pass divine intervention, but Chi Chi Ariguzo was a full time starter and excellent volume tackler while Smith was the first linebacker off the bench.

Northwestern's linebacker depth is untested with two redshirt freshman and a rarely used junior in reserve. But considering the likelihood that the Wildcats will play nickel packages, I doubt that depth will be tested much against Cal.

Secondary

CB: Jr. Nick Van Hoose ; S: Sr. Ibraheim Campbell ; S: Jr. Traveon Henry ; CB: So. Matthew Harris

Four returning starters, three of them upper classmen. That's typically a pretty good formula for success, and none of these players were obvious weak links last year. On the other hand, none of them stand out as obvious difference makers as tackle or turnover machines. Ibraheim is more of a free safety and probably the biggest ball hawk, but the starters only combined for five picks last year.

Like the linebackers, the biggest question in the secondary is depth. Sophomore Dwight White saw action last year and will almost certainly be Northwestern's nickel back, but the other three slots on the two deep are all filled by redshirt freshmen. I doubt Pat Fitzgerald wants to test that depth in the first game of the season - all the more reason for Cal to push the tempo and make the starters defend as many plays as possible.

Against the pass

2013: 6.9 yards/attempt allowed, 47th in the country

Solid, but unspectacular. I think that Northwestern has a pretty decent secondary and linebackers that are capable of making plays against the pass, but sometimes struggled to maintain a consistent pass rush. That could be more of the same this year .

Against the run

2013: 4.15 yards/attempt allowed, 60th in the country

More mediocre, and not likely to improve considering the current depth chart on the interior of the line. When the Wildcats really struggled last year, they were gashed on the ground - 248 yards vs. Ohio St., 286 vs. Wisconsin. Obviously the Bears aren't quite in a place to mimic teams like that, but Cal simply HAS to take advantage on the ground.

Advanced stats

Defensive FEI, 2013: 36th in the country
Defensive S&P+, 2013: 56th in the country, 57th vs. the rush and 73rd vs. the pass

The two major advanced stats at Football Outsiders have a bit of a gap in their evaluation of Northwestern's 2013 defense, and I'm not entirely sure why. My best theory is that FEI focuses on drives, while S&P focuses more on individual plays. And while I hesitate to use the term because it's become an annoying football cliche, Northwestern's defense seems to be a classic bend-but-don't-break defense. Football genius Bill Connelly backs me up on this one. The Wildcats were really bad at getting 3 and outs, but they were pretty good at limiting big plays (48 plays of 20+ yards allowed all year vs. Cal's 87) and holding teams to field goals in the red zone.

Turnovers

2013: 23 forced turnovers (19 interceptions, 4 fumbles), 47th in the country

Northwestern had a weird year for turnovers in 2013. 19 interceptions was a top 10 mark, while 4 fumbles recovered was tied for dead last. The Wildcats only forced 8 fumbles, so it's not like they were necessarily unlucky, but neither did they face teams that just dropped the ball for no good reason. Let's hope the Bears don't help them out on that front.

Conclusions

If Northwestern can get decent production from their defensive line against both the run and the pass, then this should be a solid if unspectacular defense. If Cal's offense improves to a level optimistic Cal fans think it should improve to, then the Bears should be able to move the ball on solid if unspectacular defenses, right?

Cal managed 500+ yards and 30 points against Northwestern to start the 2013 season despite zero help from the running game and two fluky deflected interceptions in Jared Goff's debut. I think even the most dour pessimist would be hard pressed to argue that Cal's offense shouldn't be better at every single position group this year. Meanwhile, I would expect Northwestern's defense to be roughly as good as it was last year. Ergo, Cal should have a more successful day on offense, right?

I think that's a reasonable expectation. But it's worth noting that this game will be played in Illinois, with potentially inclement weather, and that does make a difference.

Like most any other game, so much will depend on the battle on the line. I think there are enough questions on Northwestern's line, and just maybe enough progress for Cal's offensive line, to build an honest run game and give Goff time. If that happens, then Cal can absolutely win a shootout. But if Cal's line plays more like it did last year, and the run game withers as experienced Wildcat linebackers make plays, and Goff gets put on his back a few times . . . well, then Cal will be left with the same inefficient offense, and almost certainly a road loss to start the season.