Defense helps lead No. 24 Cal back into national rankings
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) After two years of allowing big plays, California’s defense is making them this season for a change.
An improved ball-hawking secondary is the biggest reason the 24th-ranked Golden Bears (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) are ranked for the first time since 2009 and off to the school’s best start in eight years.
After allowing just two touchdown passes the first four weeks, the Bears will be in for their toughest test yet Saturday when they host Washington State (2-1, 0-0).
”It will be a big challenge for us,” coach Sonny Dykes said. ”We’ll have a lot better idea of what our pass defense is like. Washington State throws the ball against everybody. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing against. They’re good at throwing it and they know how to throw it.”
Everybody threw against the Bears the past two seasons when they allowed the most yards and second-most points in the nation in Dykes’ first two years. Cal gave up 74 TD passes those two years, a staggering 15 more than the next worst team in the nation.
But that has changed so far this season as Cal is tied for the lead in the nation with nine interceptions and has not allowed a TD pass in the past 11 quarters.
”We know how to practice and we want the ball,” cornerback Darius Allensworth said. ”Our main thing is getting the ball. We’re attacking the ball more.”
Never was the defense exposed more than last year’s meeting against the Cougars when Connor Halliday broke the NCAA passing record by throwing for 734 yards and six scores in Washington State’s 60-59 loss.
”We won,” Allensworth said. ”People set records but as long as we got the `W,’ I’m OK with that.”
Halliday is gone but the offense is just as potent with Luke Falk, who leads the Pac-12 with 356.7 yards passing per game. That sets the stage for a big quarterback matchup with Cal star Jared Goff.
”I focus on me,” Falk said. ”I’m not focused on Goff at all. It’s not me versus him. It’s team versus team. I know he is a good quarterback.”
Here are some other things to watch when the Cougars visit the Bears:
MIRROR IMAGE: There are lots of similarities with the two offenses – the ”Air Raid” at Washington State and ”Bear Raid” at Cal. Dykes was an assistant to Cougars coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech and has taken some of those lessons from that time. While there are differences with the offenses, the familiarity has helped the defenses prepare.
”It’s refreshing,” Allensworth said. ”We know what we’re going to get.”
HEARTBREAKING FINISH: Last year’s wide open game ended with a dud. With the Cougars in position for the winning score, kicker Quentin Breshears sent a 19-yard field goal attempt wide right with 19 seconds remaining to lead to the loss.
”We are not looking at the past,” Washington State safety Taylor Taliulu said. ”We are focusing on what we can do this week.”
RECORD-SETTING GOFF: Goff is already the record-holder at Cal for yards passing, total offense, completions and 300-yard passing games. He can add another record this week with one more touchdown pass. Goff is currently tied with Kyle Boller with 64 for the most in school history.
RETURN GAME: One of the highlights for Cal in last year’s game was Trevor Davis returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in the third quarter. Cal has yet to break a long return this year, with Davis’ long being just 25 yards. The Bears have returned just five kicks in all, averaging 18.6 yards per return. There have also been 10 touchbacks and two short kicks that weren’t returned.
”It’s been a weird year,” Dykes said. ”Our sample size is too small to draw a lot of conclusions. It has to get better.”
Associated Press Writer Nicholas K. Geranios contributed to this report.