Feature: Third-Ranked Cal's Defense Showing Signs of Improvement
Oct. 3, 2007
In the Pac-10, defensive statistics often have to be adjusted for inflation.
That's why the California Golden Bears felt good about their defense even after conceding 497 yards and 24 points in a 31-24 victory over Oregon last weekend.
Oregon had averaged 536.75 yards and 48.5 points per game, both seventh in the nation.
'I think we play pretty good defense out here in the Pac-10,' Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. 'Hopefully, everybody saw that.'
The defense-wins-championships cliches holds true even in the offense-oriented Pac-10. The champion or co-champion has led the league in scoring defense 14 times since 1986, and five times in the last seven years.
The Bears are better known for their high-powered attack. Speedy wide receiver DeSean Jackson has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate, while tailbacks Justin Forsett and Jahvid Best form a potent tandem. Nate Longshore is a steady if unspectacular student of the Jeff Tedford School of Quarterbacking.
But even the most explosive offenses can be stopped or slowed. And that's why Cal's defense will have to play an important role as the Bears bid for their first Bowl Championship Series berth.
Defeating then-No. 11 Oregon in Autzen Stadium was a big step for the unit. And the Bears did it without playmaking linebacker Zack Follett, who has a neck injury. Cal also played without starting defensive end Rulon Davis, who has a sprained foot.
'To hold that crew to 24 points is a tremendous job,' coach Jeff Tedford said.
'I think coach Gregory and his staff have just done a phenomenal job. We're playing with a lot of guys that are banged up and I can't say enough abut the kids that are playing hard.'
As the Oregon game approached, Cal's defenders had grown tired of hearing analysts talk about how many points it would take to win the game between two of the Pac-10's most prolific offenses.
'We took it upon ourselves,' linebacker Worrell Williams said. 'They tried to say it's going to be a shootout. Defense was the reason why we're going to lose the game.'
But it turned out to be one of the reasons they won it.
Although Cal gave up 497 yards, the Bears allowed only five plays of 20 or more. And after a few shaky moments, the Bears responded well when Oregon coach Mike Bellotti sprung a no-huddle attack on them.
'I think we stayed relatively composed throughout the game,' Gregory said. 'There were a couple of deals there where maybe we weren't; we were getting a little anxious. But I think generally we played the no-huddle OK.'
The Golden Bears harassed Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon, the nation's eighth-ranked passer, into his first two interceptions of the season. The first, by linebacker Anthony Felder, gave Cal the ball at Oregon's 21-yard line. Three plays later, Forsett scored on a 1-yard run to give Cal a 31-24 lead.
The Bears also forced another turnover on the game's decisive play. Oregon had the ball at Cal's 5-yard line when Dixon found Cameron Colvin in the left flat. Colvin raced to the flag, where rover Marcus Ezeff belted him as he tried to reach the ball over the goal line. Colvin fumbled it out of the end zone and Cal was awarded possession on a touchback.
The turnovers are part of a trend established in the season's first series. Follett tackled Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, forcing a fumble that Williams scooped up and returned 44 yards for a touchdown in a 45-31 victory Sept. 1 in Berkeley.
The Golden Bears have a plus-11 turnover margin, third-best in the country. They forced four turnovers and committed none against Oregon on Saturday.
'It's really the difference,' Tedford said. 'It's something we've preached all through camp. It's just nice to see that something that you preach and you work on so hard comes to fruition. It's the difference between winning and losing a tough game.'
Cal still has room to improve. The Bears rank fourth in Pac-10 scoring defense, allowing 24.4 points per game, and sixth in total defense, giving up 388.2 yards per game.
Williams, a junior from Sacramento who is in his second season as a starter, said the defense is still coming together.
'We haven't put our best game together,' Williams said. 'We're getting healthy. When we get everybody back and together, our best days are still ahead.'