It would be inappropriate to call this weekend's matchup with Utah the beginning of the hard part of Cal's schedule, considering the...difficulties...the Bears have faced on the road to 5-0. That said, the Utes will be the most complete team they've faced by a decent margin. You don't beat Oregon by 42 points (or get seven first place votes in this week's AP poll, for that matter) by having a lot of obvious weaknesses.
Some Cal fans are about ready to concede this one even before Lee Corso puts on his mascot head of choice. They have their reasons, not least of which is whether Coach Tommerdahl has an answer for all the special teams nonsense Utah is about to unleash. But that's why they play the games on the field and not on the stat sheet. Speaking of which, let's have a look at that stat sheet.
The Story so Far...
This offseason was a tumultuous one for the Utes defense. DE Nate Orchard and his 18.5 sacks (second in FBS) were drafted by Cleveland in the second round. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake left to join Gary Andersen at Oregon State. The secondary was decimated by the loss of cornerbacks Eric Rowe (graduation) and Dominique Hatfield (dismissal from team). But things resettled quickly as head coach Kyle Wittingam coaxed former Utes DL coach John Pease out of retirement to take the coordinator job. Hatfield was cleared to return to the team in September, and things seem to have gone okay for the Utes since then.
This defense brings back plenty of experience, especially in the front seven. They're employing the bend-but-don't-break philosophy excellently, ranking 47th in total defense but allowing just 18.8 points a game, good enough for 23rd in FBS. They've held both Michigan and Oregon to season-low scores. They'll be a challenging matchup for the Goffense, to be sure.
Starters: Jr #49 Hunter Dimick, So #93 Lowell Lotulelei, So #45 Filipo Mokofisi, Sr #51 Jason Fanaika
The defensive line doesn't have an obvious heir to Nate Orchard just yet, but they're getting along just fine anyway thanks to Coach Pease's history as a DL coach. The four starters have combined for 47 career starts, and will benefit from the return of DE Hunter Dimick who spent two weeks spent recovering from injury. He was named honorable mention All-Pac-12 last season alongside Lotulelei, and seemed to be off to a good start before getting hurt. This line's ability to get pressure has been concentrated on the right side though, as Fanaika and his backup Pita Taumoepenu have combined for 5.5 sacks this season.
Starters: Sr #53 Jason Wittingham, Sr #41 Jared Norris, Sr #13 Gionni Paul
The linebackers return all three starters from 2014. Gionni Paul is back to his ballhawking ways, recording an interception, two fumble recoveries, and two pass breakups so far. He earned Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors for his performance against Utah State. Look out as well for Jared Norris, who shares the team lead in tackles with Paul with 32.
Starters: Jr #15 Dominique Hatfield, Jr #16 Cory Butler-Byrd, Jr #12 Justin Thomas, So #20 Marcus Williams, Sr #9 Tevin Carter
If there's an opportunity for Cal to take advantage of Utah's defense—and we're talking relative weaknesses here—it could be passing against this secondary. This is still an experienced unit, but it did lose three major contributors (S Brian Blechen, CBs Erik Rowe and Davion Orphey) after last season. It would be in Jared Goff's interest to keep the ball away from S Marcus Williams on account of his three interceptions. He and Jared Norris had back-to-back picks off of Oregon's Jeff Lockie coming out of halftime last week. Fellow safety Justin Thomas earned his first Pac-12 player of the week honors in the opener against Michigan. Butler-Byrd is a three-way player, lining up at CB, WR, and kick returner.
It's hard to find many bright spots for the Bears out of this defense, especially when you remember how dangerous the Utah offense looked last time they took the field. Tony Franklin will need all of his weapons healthy and ready to go. Assuming Cal's turnover luck continues, capitalizing on short fields will be a necessity. My prediction? "Still no Stanfurdium" makes it on at least three GameDay signs.