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Regular Season Review: Defense

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Making sense of this season for Cal’s defense

NCAA Football: Washington State at California Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

And now on to the defense. Because expectations were so high, and because we’re grading against those expectations, this is going to feel more dour than the defense deserves. Thus, it’s worth restating the obvious: Cal’s defense was absolutely the strength of the team, the foundation upon which Cal’s wins were earned.

In terms of absolute performance in Pac-12 play, Cal’s defense was right alongside Washington but behind the elite defenses of Oregon and Utah. Having the 3rd or 4th best defense in the conference is still pretty good. Unfortunately, this defense wasn’t the generational defense that many of us got so excited about during the offseason. Let’s dive in:

Raw Numbers

Efficiency stats

Yards/play: 5.3, 43rd in the nation
Points/drive: 2.1, 55th in the nation

Component Stats

Turnovers: 15, 89th in the nation
3rd down conversion rate: 39.4%, 70th in the country
Yards/run: 3.5, 24th in the nation
Yards/pass attempt: 7.1, 51st in the nation
Sacks: 34, 25th in the nation
Explosive plays (20+ yards): 48, 33rd in the nation

Like I started to say above: Cal’s defense brought almost everybody back and got a little bit worse across the board. But if you’re looking for two items that really stand out, go straight for turnovers forced and yards/pass attempt allowed. Last year, Cal was 6th in forced turnovers and 12th in yards/pass attempt, and Cal fell in both categories, both in terms of raw numbers and national ranking.

And ultimately it’s those two declines that led to Cal allowing more points. Cal fell from 1.4 points/drive allowed to 2.1, which is the difference between borderline top 10 and slightly above average.

Here’s some quick math – in the 128 possessions Cal defended in 2019, the Bears forced 15 turnovers and allowed 265 points. If they had forced 28 turnovers (the amount Cal forced in 2018), that would be 13 more drives defended. At 2.1 points allowed/drive, that removed 27 points allowed from the ledger, which would put Cal at something closer to 1.8 points/drive allowed. That’s about half of the 2018-to-2019 defensive decline by itself. Turnovers have a massive impact on football games and football seasons, and only the elite teams with the highest end talent can start to shield themselves from the impact of turnover variance.

Game by game stats

Two games obviously stand out: Utah and USC. Cal’s defense was shredded in a way that we hadn’t seen under Justin Wilcox since midway through the 2017 season when Cal had to visit Eugene and Seattle in back to back weeks. Even when Cal gave up big points last year, offensive turnovers usually played some kind of role.

But it’s also true that Cal seemed to have fewer dominant games where the defense just shut down everything the opponent wanted to do on offense. Cal didn’t spend 2019 constantly giving up lots of points, but teams had more success sustaining more drives, converting more 3rd downs, earning more explosive plays.

What went right?

Brett Johnson saves the day

The Cal defensive line entered the season knowing that they had reliable veteran Luc Bequette, plus likely contributors Zeandae Johnson and Lone Toailoa at DE. They also expected to have Aaron Maldonado and Siulagisipai Fuimaono ready to team up at the all-important nose guard position. For undisclosed reasons, Fuimaono didn’t play this year and Maldonado received only very limited playing time in seven games.

Enter Brett Johnson. Cal’s true freshman lineman played starters’ minutes in all 12 games, held his own at the beginning of the season and started to emerge as a force late in the year. His growth over the course of the season helped the defensive line go from a relative weakness in 2018 to relative strength by the end of the season.

Improved front seven production

This is of course tied in to the arrival of Brett Johnson discussed above, but it’s worth noting that Cal has more sacks, more tackles for loss, and lower yards/run allowed. The improvements aren’t massive, but by every metric that you can measure front 7 play, Cal improved.

There are lots of reasons beyond Johnson. Bequette, Johnson, and Toailoa performed well all season long. Cam Goode returned from injury and led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss. Evan Weaver is perhaps the greatest run stopping linebacker in Cal history. Add it all up and Cal’s front 7 improved, despite uncertainty at nose tackle and the loss of a few valuable contributors from 2018. And with almost everybody from the front 7 likely to return, there’s plenty of reason for optimism in 2020.

What went wrong

It’s dangerous to brand yourself after rare, high-variability events

Look, I’m just going to go ahead and quote what I wrote back in August:

Why is it reasonable to expect turnover luck to revert? Because turnovers are really, really random. As a rough-and-dirty illustration: Below I took each team that collected 28+ turnovers over the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons (28+ forced turnovers roughly equals top 10 in the nation), then looked up how each defense fared the following season. Here are the averages:

Top turnover forcing defenses, 2017: average of 30 turnovers forced. 2018 average turnovers forced: 22

Top turnover forcing defenses, 2016: average of 30 turnovers forced. 2017 average turnovers forced: 24

Top turnover forcing defenses, 2016: average of 31 turnovers forced. 2017 average turnovers forced: 20

Regression comes for us all, eventually.

. . . but even without the turnovers, why the decline in pass defense?

From 57.6% completion percentage allowed to 64.3. From 5.9 yards/pass attempt to 7.1. Any way you slice it, Cal wasn’t nearly as dominant when opponents dropped back to pass, despite the fact that Cal returned their entire starting secondary and improved (even if only slightly) their team pass rush. That makes no sense. Why?

Possible explanations:

1. Jordan Kunaszyk was really good in pass coverage

We think of pass defense as a thing most impacted by secondary play and pass rush, but of course all 11 players matter. When Cal drops 7 or 8 into coverage, that means 5 DBs and 2 or 3 linebackers, most frequently the ILBs. The only change in personal from 2018 to 2019 was the loss of Kunaszyk, but as it turns out he had a particularly critical skillset that was probably underappreciated by Cal fans:

Last week a whole bunch of Cal fans got really mad when PFF didn’t put Evan Weaver on their Pac-12 all conference team. And while I think Evan Weaver is pretty clearly the best run defender LB in the conference and a force of nature generally, the reality is that Cal’s defense did decline this year and I think that’s because the defensive staff had no choice but to ask him to do something more often that is, for him, a relative weakness (play pass coverage) vs. blitzing the QB while Kunaszyk took care of the middle zones in Cal’s coverage schemes.

2. Nagging injuries in the secondary

It’s hard to say precisely how much impact injuries had, but we know that Traveon Beck and Ashtyn Davis played through a variety of injury problems this season. Beck missed three games, Davis missed one, and both were probably limited in certain contests, though we’ll likely not get a good sense of which games, and to what extent, their effectiveness may have been impacted.

3. Pac-12 offenses were better and the schedule was tougher

Dropping Colorado and Arizona from the schedule in exchange for Utah and ASU. Dropping USC with a busted pro-style offense for USC with an awesome spread offense. Replacing broken North Carolina playing a QB who is now linebacker with a competent Ole Miss offense. And to the extent that turnovers aren’t random, the Pac-12 was full of experienced, quality QBs who are skilled at avoiding throwing interceptions. By pretty much every measure, Cal faced a collection of offenses that were more talented and/or better coached that 2018.

Way too early expectations for 2020

So here’s the good news – Cal may well be losing much less talent than previous anticipated. First, let’s start with the guys we know for sure have exhausted their eligibility, and who participated in senior day:

NB Traveon Beck
S Ashtyn Davis
S Jaylinn Hawkins
OLB Ben Hawk Schrider
DE Lone Toailoa
S Trey Turner
ILB Evan Weaver

That’s four starters and three rotation players, which is a lot – about a third of the two deep. But prior to the season we all assumed that Luc Bequette, Zeandae Johnson and Josh Drayden would be joining them. Cal appears to be confident that they can get a 6th year for all three players, which would go a long ways towards maintaining some solid continuity from 2019 to 2020. There were also concerns that Elijah Hicks, Cam Bynum and Cameron Goode might declare early for the NFL draft, and while I wouldn’t be shocked to see any of the three leave, I also wouldn’t be surprised if any or all of them stuck around. So the 2020 Cal defense has a chance to have more of a reload season rather than a rebuild season.

The obvious areas of concern will be at inside linebacker and safety. ILB is fairly obvious: Evan Weaver has been the beating heart of Cal’s defense for the entirety of the Wilcox era, and I don’t think fans have any particular sense of which players might be poised to play alongside Kuony Deng at ILB.

Meanwhile Cal will be losing Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis at safety, though the possible replacements are more obvious. Daniel Scott received some playing time and looked solid, and Isaiah Humphries should be ready to go after sitting out this year after transferring from Penn State. Depth could be a concern, which means the pressure could be on some very young players and/or we might see some position changes from CB to safety depending on how the coaches feel about the roster.

If Cal’s defensive coaches can find a way to maintain 2019’s level of defensive performance despite significant personnel losses and Cal gets the kind of improvement you would hope to get from an offense that returns pretty much everybody, then 2020 starts looking pretty interesting.

But next week we’ll finish our regular season review with the unit that could perhaps stand to improve the most: special teams.