It's odd to see the change of a much maligned defense from a year ago. A quick polling of Cal fans in your area would mark this turnaround as unexpected. 18 forced turnovers and 18 sacks for the Bears so far leads the conference. Guys like Kyle Kragen (4 sacks) and Darius Allensworth (2 forced fumbles in the past two games) are making impacts in their new starting roles and returning starters like Stefan McClure have stepped up their game.
It's also strange, looking back to a year ago, to see Utah sitting at the top of the Pac, after doing to Oregon what the Ducks have done to the rest of the conference for years. Utah's defense has gotten a lot of attention due to producing NFL prospects like Star Lotulelei and Nate Orchard, but the offense hasn't been anything special. After some great execution, trickery, and general chicanery, the Utes dropped 60 on the Ducks. Special teams fakes aside, 55 points came from that offense. Kyle Wittingham has this team ready to twist the knife when they're up to finish it. The Cal defense has to be opportunistic on the road, disciplined to stop the read option, and come out inspired. This is what they're up against.
Travis Wilson is the spearhead of the attack, and while his numbers aren't worldbeating, he is lynchpin that makes the offense work. Every time that he has been injured and Kendall Thompson had to come in, the offense becomes one-dimensional. Wilson can throw the ball better than Thompson, leagues better, and his running abilities are decent enough to outweigh Thompson's. At 6'7", Wilson runs with the gait of a baby giraffe and the consternation of a man in need of an immediate bathroom break. It is strangely effective, as he picked up 100 yards on six carries against Oregon and he has a rushing touchdown in every game so far. Here are his other pertinent stats (over 3 games, as he didn't play against Fresno State):
- 68% completion, 171 yards per game
- 6.8 yards per attempt with a 140.4 passer rating
- 4 touchdowns and 1 interception
- 23 carries for 200 yards and 3 TDs
Wilson will take the ball and run, and his success is set up by arguably the best running back in the Pac-12.
Devontae Booker will be an issue in the zone read game. Booker was first team All Pac-12 in 2014, piling up 1512 yards along with 10 touchdowns. He's currently sitting at fifth in yards per game this season, averaging 110.8 every time out. Booker is the type of running back who can get inside tackles, shake off hits, and get yards after contact. He does have some solid top speed, not the best in the Pac-12, but he's a complete back. He also threw a touchdown pass last week, in which every defender went after Booker instead of the route, so that should show how dangerous opposing defenses find him.
Booker will also be a threat in the passing game, having garnered the second-most receptions on the team. The biggest receiver for the Utes is Britain Covey, and along with Kenneth Scott these three make up the majority of Utah's passing yardage. Covey, a true freshman, looks to be the slot speedster, whereas Scott is in the mold of the bigger possession outside receiver. They could prove to be a formidable one-two punch in the passing game.
First and foremost, the Utes will run. Their two best players on offense make the run game go. Luckily for the Bears, the run game is very simple. The concepts are the same as Oregon's for the most part. Inside zone and outside zone are the most common. On an inside zone, the quarterback reads the outside linebacker to figure out whether to keep it or give it. Below is a clip of how to play the outside zone.
The defensive end bites down on Booker, and Wilson carries out the rest of the run. The defensive back isn't fooled by the bubble screen action, and spills Wilson down the line to his help on the outside. The DB keeps him from getting any kind of gain, and it certainly helps that Travis Wilson doesn't have too much shiftiness.
Here's what happens when the defense is undisciplined against the zone. This specifically is an outside zone with a lead blocker.
The middle linebacker doesn't play in the alley, trying to go around the pulling guard instead of attacking under. In most speed options, the middle linebacker's responsibility is the quarterback. He goes for the jet-sweeping receiver, and gets washed out by the guard. One level up, the safety is his backup, and he misplays his pursuit angle, trying to go to where the quarterback is instead of where he's going to be. He gets washed out, and Wilson gets a 30 yard gain running like a beginner sprinter who has just been told to swing his arms harder.
There is a right way to play the outside zone, which Oregon did. When Oregon's defense didn't completely fall apart, it had some textbook defensive stops against the zone. On an aside, they should be able to stop the zone read, since they see it every day in practice.
The outside linebacker is reading the play, and he's athletic enough to force the handoff. When the ball is handed off, the backer plays down the line, shuffles with the back, and makes the tackle in the backfield. Staying with the running back step for step staggers the running back and they hold Utah to a field goal.
Utah doesn't do anything specific that I've seen in the passing game. Kyle Whittingham has incorporated his fair share of spread concepts into this offense. They'll run your regular endzone fade, some deep routes, swing route for Devontae Booker after clearing out with their receivers, and more. There is one thing that I can say that Utah will run with all certainty. They will run what gave defensive backs nightmares in Texas, the wheel route. They ran it against Oregon, and it looked like this.
The nickel corner presses initially and goes to pass him off to the other corner, who's supposed to be in his cover 3 zone. He's not as he bites down on the quick 5 yard hook, the receiver is wide open, and the rout is on. Expect the wheel route, considering how that went on multiple occasions down in Austin. It didn't look too different from this.
I'm not so sure what to expect on Friday, as to whether Utah will play with this much confidence. The Oregon game may have been the perfect storm of execution, where the beatdown occurs and everything is perfect. Utah may go back to playing like they did against Utah State. That team is a team Cal can beat. The team they were against Oregon is going to be much more difficult to beat. The team that Utah is is probably somewhere in the middle of those, but they played Oregon well, and held down a Michigan team that is looking to be pretty good as the year rolls on. With the defense looking much improved, I wouldn't be surprised if the defense holds down Travis Wilson much more than Oregon did. Or tried to do.