"We’ll be as good as our defense allows us to be" said Cal coach Sonny Dykes prior to the start of the 2015 year. The coach's comments were in reference to the fact, that while Cal has had one of the most prolific Pac-12 offenses the past couple years, their defense has been horrible, ranking 124th out of 128 NCAA teams in total defense last season. This season has shown marked improvement however, and the Cal defense has allowed Cal to reach 5-0 and a top 25 ranking.
Art Kaufman is in second season as Bears defensive coordinator after serving in that same role at both Texas Tech and Cincinnati. Continuity appears to have played a part in the Bears uptick in defense, as they have 17 defensive players who started games last season on the roster. The familiarity with players, coaches and scheme this season has helped lead to improved play.
The Cal defense’s calling card this year is impact plays on defense, i.e. interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks, tackles for a loss etc. In Cal’s five games this season, the defense has scored three times. In total, the Bear defense has recorded ten interceptions this season by eight different players, including three by linebackers. That number ties them for second in the country in interceptions, with two of them taken back for six. They have forced five fumbles in just the last three games and took one back for a touchdown last week against Washington State.
The defensive front has been active as well, with 13 different players combining for 18 sacks. Currently tied for sixth in nation in sacks and 18th in the nation in tackles for a loss, Cal has been one of the more active fronts in the country. Cal leads the nation in turnover margin with +8 which plays a major role is their 5-0 record.
Two weeks in a row a Cal defensive player has been named Pac-12 defensive player of the week. Senior defensive end Kyle Kragen earned the honors two weeks ago with 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup in Cal's win against Washington. Kragen leads the defensive line with 21 total tackles and four sacks.
Cal is solid at linebacker, though there are no standout playmakers. Senior Jalen Jefferson leads the team in total tackles with 26 and has an interception. Junior Michael Barton has 18 tackles and an interception. Junior Hardy Nickerson is also a player to watch in Cal's linebacking corps, with 20 tackles on the season.
Senior safety Stefan McClure was the Pac-12 defensive player of the week last week against Washington State. McClure who has spent a good portion of his career injured, had a big day, recording a sack and returning a fumble for a touchdown. At the cornerback positions, both Darius White and junior Damariay Drew have two interceptions apiece. Cameron Walker plays the Nickelback position for the Bears defense, and has emerged as a playmaker in that role, having a pick six and two sacks for the season.
The key for the Utah offense will be to limit the number of impact plays the Cal defense is able to get. Without the impact plays, California is still pretty mediocre on defense. They give up 23.4 point per game, ranking 63rd in scoring defense. Their pass defense ranks 94th, and their run defense ranks 43rd, however those numbers could be skewed, as they faced a pass-heavy WSU team last week, and none of their other opponents have particularly strong running games.
Cal is allowing opponents to convert on third down 40.28% of the time. The opposition is able to score some type of points 92.86% of the time they reach the red zone, and 78.57% of the time, it’s a touchdown. The Bears rank 10th in conference in long plays allowed. It is the only defense in conference to give up a 90+ yard play and have consistently allowed chunk yardage, giving up the most 20+ yard plays with 27.
Overall, Cal is not a top defense. The Bears allow chunk yardage and big plays, but are able to cover some of it up by creating havoc at times for opposing offenses. They make enough of their own big plays and create enough turnovers to allow the Cal offense to outscore the opponent.The Utes will need to limit turnovers and play a smart offensive game. Feed the ball to Booker and Wilson on the read option, and keep the clock running to limit Cal’s time of possession on offense. Wilson should also have some opportunities to take some deep shots against the Cal secondary. If Utah can take advantage of scoring opportunities and convert on third down, they should be able to generate enough points to beat the Cal Bears at home.