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Week 10 Defensive Preview: #8 Washington State (7–1)

Cal faces a top Pac-12 defense for the second week in a row

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford
Linebacker Peyton Pelleur is entering his sixth year as a Washington State linebacker
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Scouting Report:

Scheme: Base 3-3-5
Defensive Coordinator: Tracy Claeys
Week 9 Recap: Defeated #24 Stanford 41–38
Pass Defense: 79 % completion percentage, 323 passing yards allowed and 4 touchdowns
Rush Defense: 119 rushing yards on 35 attempts, 5.2 yards per attempt, with 1 touchdown
Total Defense: 2 turnovers (interception, fumble recovery), 443 yards total offense allowed, 8–13 on third downs

Defensive Line:

Another week, another three-man Pac-12 defensive line for Cal to face. Let’s preview from the middle outward. Nose tackle Taylor Comfort doesn’t have lightning-quick speed off the line, but he penetrates the offensive line with the power of thunder. His diminutive stature—six-feet tall and 275 pounds—allows him to get underneath the offensive lineman’s pads and drive them back, collapsing the pocket. Comfort splits reps at nose with fellow redshirt-senior Nick Begg and Australia native Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys likes to get his defensive lineman on the move with stunts and twists. It’s common in the games for Logan Tago and Nnamdi Oguayo to rotate from their normal positions on the outside at defensive end to taking on interior offensive lineman in the middle as a mismatch from a stunt. Tago has been successful this season when used in this strategy, racking up 17 tackles and 5.5 tackles-for-loss. On the other side, true-sophomore Willie Rodgers lines up over the guard as a defensive tackle, but can move out wide the offensive tackle and play D-end based on the defensive play call.

The Cougars as a team are allowing 133 rushing yards per game, ranked modestly at 37th in the NCAA. They were gouged on the ground two weeks in a row (Weeks 5 and 6) for 200+ rushing yards. In both of those games, the opposing offenses had dynamic runners with game-breaking speed. Chase Garbers has run the show at quarterback for Cal the past three weeks, but Brandon McIlwain could once again see a lot of snaps. Utah QB Tyler Huntley rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns on the Cougars in Week 5 and McIlwain boasts a similar skill set, leading me to wonder if we will see him in significant action this weekend.


Washington State runs their linebacking corps a little differently than most 3-3 schemes. All of the Cougars linebackers fit a particular player-type mold and the determines their roles for the defense. Claeys schemes players into specific situations, not allowing the quarterback to be comfortable with his defensive keys or reads.

True-sophomore Dominick Silvels is the ‘backer employed as a primary edge rusher. Silvels leads the Cougars in both sacks (3.5) and TFLs (5.5). Although his production numbers aren’t high, he is always getting off of his blocks and setting the edge in the run game, redirecting the ball carriers into traffic, and helping out the rest of the defense. Silvels gets moved from either side of the defensive line and can attack the quarterback from anywhere.

Middle-linebacker Peyton Pelluer is back at Washington for his sixth season on the Cougars defense. Pelluer broke his foot three games into the 2017 season, but was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA. He has made the most his final season on Washington State, compiling a team lead of 61 total tackles through eight games. As of Week 8, his 315 total career tackles is ranked two shy of ninth on the Cougars all-time list. He is coming off a big performance against Stanford last weekend, stripping quarterback K.J. Costello and causing a fumble while also gaining a sack and TFL. Puelluer is close behind Silvells on the stat sheet, collecting the same amount of tackles behind the line of scrimmage (5.5) and one-half less sack than him (3).

Every game, redshirt-sophomore Jahad Woods is on clean-up duty. He navigates smoothly through offensive lineman trying to block him and he cleans up all the mess his defensive line, and fellow linebackers make. Claeys has Woods do a little bit of everything on defense. He covers players out of the backfield—tight ends, too—blitzes the quarterback, and fills rushing lanes when they open up. He has the second-most tackles on the team with 44 and is tied with Pelluer for sacks with three.

Defensive Backs:

The most significant difference between Washington State’s starting defensive back unit and their linebacker/D-line is shared experience. All of the starting players in the secondary are in their third year and have a combined 130 game appearances over their Cougar careers. Strong safety Jalen Thompson has started in every game since he came to Pullman as a true freshman in 2016 and is one of four WSU defensive backs with an interception this season. He also has a forced fumble and fumble recovery, adding to his turnover total. Outside cornerback Darrien Molton is in his fourth season as a full-time starter on the defense. Molton’s veteran leadership on defense helps elevate the play of his teammates. In his four-year career at Wazzu, he has made 188 tackles and caught two interceptions.

Sean Harper is the starting cornerback playing opposite of Molton in the back end. Harper originally signed his letter of intent with Washington State in 2015, but had to start his football career at a community college due to academic issues. Eventually, he was able to find his way back to the team he committed to. Harper is the tallest player in the secondary, towering over smaller receivers at 6-foot-2. However, he has missed two straight games with an undisclosed lower-body injury and his status for the Cal game is still up in the air. Junior Marcus Strong has been starting in his place for the meantime. Starting at free safety is third-year Ca. native Skyler Thomas; he is third on the team in total tackles with 44.

Hunter Dale starts at nickelback, handling all players in the slot and over the middle. Nickel defense previously was just a package employed in passing situations, but because college offenses have evolved to be heavily favored to the pass, the nickelback has become a permanent position. Dale is the Swiss Army knife of the defense, racking up 11.5 total TFLs in his career, as well as getting an interception.

Washington State has the No. 3–ranked pass defense in the Pac-12 and 35th-best in the nation. They have only allowed a low 11 passing touchdowns this season. Although McIlwain can take advantage of a weak spot on WSU’s defense with his dual-threat capabilities, his passing game could become a weak spot for Cal. This should be a game where we see a heavy dose of two quarterbacks under center.


How many points will California score against Washington State?

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  • 20%
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