Cal Football's Defense: A Unit Hunkered in Hiberation
"This, what we showed tonight, isn't who we are" - Craig Woodson
It’s widely known that the Cal defense was the more consistent group during fall camp. Amidst quarterback changes, Jaydn Ott being limited in reps, and the wide receivers making plays, there was optimism that the Bears defensive unit could rise from the ashes of last year. And yet, it’s the quarterback battle that seems to have been fixed for the time being, while the defense continues to chase air.
But why or how can this happen? In year seven of the Justin Wilcox era, Cal Football is currently giving up 39(!!) points per game on defense during conference play thus far (adjusted for Washington’s pick six and punt return TD). Sure, the Pac 12 is the most stacked conference when it comes to quarterback play, but the Justin Wilcox era has been earmarked with strong defenses, struggling offenses, and eye bleaching special teams.
In 2023, the team has been established as a group with an unknown offense, an opportunistic yet inconsistent defense, and eye bleaching special teams. It almost becomes maddening in the sense that the one unit that’s been consistent over the years is faltering by the way side, igniting a five alarm fire that the coaches have to answer for. Just how befuddling has the defense been through three conference games? Avi unfortunately has the answers…….
It’s naive to think sacks are the be-all end-all when it comes to a measure of a defense’s success. Take a look at the 2021 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were a run-stuffing machine that assisted their 3rd and long defense. But for the Bears to not register a single sack through three conference games, where they’ve had 45, 21, and 52 points hung on them? Not good enough in any respect. Michael Penix Jr and DJ Uiagalelei could’ve cooked a five-course meal back in the pocket, and when you consider the aforementioned stellar quarterback play, talk about throwing kerosene on the fire. Add in the 69% competition percentage and 182 passer rating given up, and it’s been a house of horrors. Cal’s run defense has actually been fine, giving up only 116 yards per game, 137 in conference versus 95 during non-conference play. Despite being ranked 50th in DFEI, the perceptions and trends for the defense aren’t heading in the right direction.
Furthermore, the run defense hasn’t made up for the disaster on the back end. Attempting to make sense of it makes it all the more puzzling. The secondary, which brought in terrific reinforcements in Nohl Williams and Patrick McMorris, hasn’t stepped up to the plate as one of the best position groups like they were in fall camp. Part of that is they are having to guard for so long so receivers like Silas Bolden, Rome Odunze, and Hayden Hatten will make plays. Other times, they are just getting beat by players like Anthony Gould, Jack Velling, and Ja’Lynn Polk. Seven years later, and it still seems like a tight end is running wide open up the seam or on the goal line on play action.
“At the end of the day good God……I mean I’m just trying to think of plays we made on defense, where we got off a block and made a tackle or knocked a ball down, we didn’t do any of that” - Justin Wilcox postgame vs Oregon State
Cal’s defense has the talent. Any number of names from Brett Johnson, Jackson Sirmon, Nohl Williams, Patrick McMorris, Kaleb Elarms-Orr, and Jeremiah Earby can make a name for themselves either at this level or on Sunday’s. Somehow, this group is giving up 10.2 yards per attempt, only generated four total turnovers in conference, and been a disappointing unit as a whole.
'“Big Picture, we need to get people off schedule, we need to attempt to find some sacks, some negative yardage plays” - Cal DC Peter Sirmon at Tuesday’s media availability
Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon know they have to be better. It’s year seven of this administration and as cliche as it sounds, the time for talk is over. Cal fans aren’t going to wait around while other programs like Oregon State and Colorado have risen from darker abysses.
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