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Cal football defense struggling, but still look worlds better than last year

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Generally when Cal has scored 40 points in the past, they have won. They did so the past two weeks and nearly lost both times. What would be the primary culprits and why? (Possibilities: Defensive depth? Specific defensive weaknesses? Quick offense keeping the D on the field? Bad luck?)

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

TwistNHook: People more intelligent than I can break down the specifics of the defensive players.  I wanted to focus on a more subtle culprit, the offense.  You might say "Wait, what?"  However, if the defense is tired, they need the offense to give them time to rest.  This offense is not designed to stay on the field for a long time.  We can score almost anywhere at any time with any number of offensive weapons.  It is amazing, really.  The downside, though, is that they get off the field extremely fast.

Look at the drive chart: Cal had 19 drives in the 2OT game!  If my math is correct, they had 75 total plays, which divided by 19 is more or less 4.  So, on average they had 4 plays per drive.  They only had 1 drive with double digit plays.  All but 1 drive was less than 3 minutes long.  Contrast this with Colorado, which had 17 drives.  If my math is correct, they had 113 plays, which is an average of 6.6 plays per drive.  They had multiple double digit drives.  They also had several drives 3-4 minutes in length.  

This is not to say that Colorado has some perfect offense we need to emulate, but merely that Cal's explosive big-play offense does not eat up clock and gets the defense back onto the field quicker, even if it gives them 7 more points to defend.

Nick Kranz:
Cal's defense, after 11 straight excellent quarters to start the season, has looked completely incapable of stopping anybody over the last 5, and the primary 'culprit' has been a lack of disruptive playmaking. No sacks, very few tackles for loss, and only one turnover. Against Arizona, one might reasonably assume that fatigue was the problem, but against Colorado the Buff offense was only stopped when Colorado made unforced errors - penalties, mishandled snaps, errant throws, etc.

Colorado had 17 drives on Saturday. Eight ended in touchdowns, three in missed field goals. Five drives ended either in punts of downs, and of those five, I would say that only two of those drives ended without a scoring opportunity because the Cal defense made disruptive plays. Seventeen drives, and Cal's defense did something to actively stop Colorado only 3 times. Those three?

1. The first drive of the game, when Griffin Piatt broke up a 1st down pass and pressure forced Liufau to throw the ball away on 3rd down.

2. Kearney's interception.

3. The goalline stand.

Here's a potentially controversial opinion: Lots of credit to Colorado. Cal's defense faced an insane 110 plays, and only allowed three plays longer than 25 yards, and no plays longer than 39. The defense basically dared Colorado to not make mistakes, because they kept everything in front of them. Colorado responded by basically not making mistakes for the vast majority of the game, and they dinked and dunked their way down the field multiple times.

Now, how many offenses will Cal face that will be able to replicate that? I don't know. And of course other teams will have the athletes capable of breaking big plays in addition to the short, consistent games. But right now the biggest concern is that Cal hasn't been making plays themselves to get off the field. They DID make those types of plays for the first 2.75 games, so hopefully that ability returns at some point. Like, say, against a turnover prone Washington State. 

Ruey Yen: Points are highly correlated to usage rate and given the number of plays that is ran in the Bear Raid, we certainly have to recalibrate what is the total point scored that corresponds to a victory. By having more possessions, the Bears are obviously allowing their opponents to also have more possessions and chance to score. With that said, it is concerning how the Bears' defense has been quickly torn apart in the last 5 quarters of play. While I got to agree with Nick's assessment that a lot of the credit has to be given to Colorado, I can't help but feel like that the defensive team is also overwhelmed by the shear number of plays that they have to play against, at times. Instead of going all out to make a big play, the Cal D just kind of slowly backpedal to allow the opposing teams to pick up 1st downs almost at will. Rather than actually getting physically tired from being on the field for too long, I suspect maybe the Cal defense is getting mentally fatigued in trying to read the opposing offense which is also moving at a fast rate.

Avinash Kunnath: As we all suspected, the issue is depth. One injury to Stefan McClure and the Bears have pretty much two healthy safeties to work with (I know Avery Sebastian is playing a bit, but he's not ready to play more than a handful of snaps). Darius Allensworth, Cedric Dozier and Cameron Walker is still a very green unit at corner. This secondary is full of promising players, but they are probably not ready to be a top-tier unit just yet.

Look everywhere else, and you see similar depth deficiencies. Cal has literally thrown every defensive end on this roster (ready or not) to try and get some sort of pass rush. No luck at all. The linebackers have done their work (particularly Michael Barton and Jalen Jefferson), but they are adjusting to playing regular nickel/dime packages and have had their rough spots. Griffin Piatt is probably the best performer on this side so far, and he wasn't even playing defense last year!

Despite the points, I honestly believe our defense is playing miles better than last season simply because we are limiting the big plays and keeping the playmakers in front of us. The Buhfense gave up 217 plays of ten or more yards this season (122nd FBS), 87 plays of 20 or more yards (last in FBS), and 47 plays of 30 or more yards (next to last in FBS) from scrimmage. This season we're still giving up plenty of 10+ yard plays (T-95th so far), but we've knocked down the 20+ yard plays (only 15 so far this season, T-30th in FBS) and the 30+ yard plays (7 so far this season, T-43rd in FBS).

Those are marked improvements given the depth at our disposal, and it's why I think Kaufman is the most important factor to our team's success this season. Honestly the defense is performing way better than it was at this point last season given their relative talent levels. They spotted Colorado an early lead and gave up some late drives to Arizona, but for most of the game they are keeping the offense in front of them and are forcing them to drive the length of the field and make plays, which is more than I can say for the Buh disaster.

This is no great unit, but we expected that and they’re playing fairly well. Obviously we'd like to see less points on the other side, but we might have to consider that this might not be feasible this season.