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Cal vs. Washington State: Previewing the Cougars Defense

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How stingy will the Cougs' defense be under new DC Alex Grinch?

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It's amazing what a 4-0 start will do for the kinds of narratives surrounding your team. Remember just a few weeks ago when we were worried that the Cal defense was going to keep getting torched as badly as they did last year? That's—mercifully—behind us now. But a 2-1 start with a loss to Portland State doesn't have quite the same effect. Washington State still has everything to prove after a dismal 2014.

They're sort of a known quantity on offense under Mike Leach, and their defense has been decent so far. But until they beat a competent team (and it could be a while, they'll be underdogs in all the rest of their games), they'll have to deal with lingering questions from last year's campaign. Will they again give up 40 points and 300 passing yards per game? Will they stay healthy in the secondary? Can they stop Jared Goff from doing all kinds of silly things to the scoreboard? Here's what we do know:

The Story so Far...

Defensive coordinator Mike Breske didn't last long once last season ended. Fielding the nation's 99th ranked defense will do that to you. In January, the Cougars hired Alex Grinch, safeties coach at Mizzou and nephew of Tigers' head coach Grary Pinkel. He utilizes a 3-4 base defense, but will often bring five defensive backs as well. That scheme benefits from the Cougs' injury woes last year, as they return five DBs who played in 10 or more games last season despite losing their leading tackler Daquawn Brown.

It hasn't been a seamless transition though, as FCS Portland State surprised the Cougars with a 24-17 takedown in Pullman. Though the Cougs struggled mostly to defend the pass last year, Portland State exposed some new vulnerabilities by rushing for 233 yards and three scores. The Cougars bounced back on the road, taking down Rutgers 37-34 (though special teams accounted for 14 of Rutgers' points) and putting together their best defensive performance in a 31-14 takedown of a bad Wyoming team. The statistics look pretty middle-of-the-road, but the level of competition is surely providing some grade inflation there.

Defensive Line

Starters: Sr. #99 Darryl Paulo, Jr #92 Robert Barber, Sr #97 Destiny Vaeao

Calling the Washington State defensive scheme a 3-4 is a little bit misleading, as they often bring one of the linebackers (Ivan McClennan or Kache Palacio) up to the line as a hybrid DE/LB much like Cal used to use Mychal Kendricks (H/T Avi). Of the three true linemen, only Vaeao has significant time as a starter. The other two have some experience, but will share snaps with a rotation of mostly upperclassmen.

Linebackers

Starters: Sr #3 Ivan McClennan OR Sr. #40 Kache Palacio, Sr. #8 Jeremiah Allison, So #47 Peyton Pelluer

McClennan and Palacio combined for 11 sacks last year, and have already collected six more. Because advanced stats are all the rage these days, it's worth noting that this linebacking corps has the highest havoc rate in the FBS (and the defense ranks 39th overall in that category). Senior Jeremiah Allison led the unit in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks last year. He was critical in icing the game against Wyoming, picking off Wyoming late in the fourth quarter last weekend. If the linebackers can get into the backfield against Cal's potentially ailing OL, they'll take a lot of pressure off of the secondary.

Defensive Backs

Starters: So #31 Isaac Dotson, Fr #22 Darrien Molton, Jr #18 Shalom Luani, So #27 Marcellus Pippins

Daquawn Brown's dismissal from the team was exactly what this secondary didn't need, but there was plenty of room for improvement after last year and they've taken to the challenge so far. Isaac Dotson was one of the many DBs to see game action as a freshman, and will leverage that experience as he returns from injury against the Bears. Pippins owns one of the Cougars' two interceptions, which makes him the impact CB by default.

Andrew's Take

Call Portland State a fluke or blame the loss on an Air Raid misfire, but the Cougars still better have some tricks in the works if they want to hang with the Bears. This defense is better than the one that let us #drop60 in Pullman, but it may still be a little while before they can keep up with one of the Pac-12's most dangerous offenses. I can imagine Grinch's blitz schemes being tricky for the offensive line, but we've seen Goff demonstrate some elusiveness in the last two games. My prediction? The Bears give Utah something to worry about during their bye week.