Cal Football: Bears’ Defense Needs More From the Offense

BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 01: Cameron Goode #19 of the California Golden Bears intercepts a pass by Nathan Elliott #11 of the North Carolina Tar Heels and returns it for a touchdown at California Memorial Stadium on September 1, 2018 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
BERKELEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 01: Cameron Goode #19 of the California Golden Bears intercepts a pass by Nathan Elliott #11 of the North Carolina Tar Heels and returns it for a touchdown at California Memorial Stadium on September 1, 2018 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Cal football looks like it could finally have a strong defense, but they can’t be the only unit that makes things happen for the Bears.

Last season, in the first year under new head coach Justin Wilcox, the Cal football defense was greatly improved from the years before. In the previous regime with Sonny Dykes at the helm, Cal would be a game opposing teams circled on their calendars, knowing it would be an easy day to pile up a lot of yardage.

Things were a lot better in 2017, with Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter running the show. After allowing 518.3 yards of total offense per game in 2016, they shaved that way down to 429.9 yards per game last year. The 511 total points allowed (42.6 per game) in 2016 was also cut drastically, to 341 points and 28.4 per game last year.

The defense didn’t suddenly become a juggernaut in Wilcox’s first year, finishing 79th out of 130 schools in scoring defense. But after finishing 127th out of 128 in Dykes’ final year, they became respectable, and they left plenty of room for improvement.

In the season opener on Saturday, Cal’s defense put together one of its better performances in a long time. The unit made life difficult for the North Carolina Tar Heels’ offense, and it started from the very first drive. After a couple short gains on the ground to get to third-and-five, cornerback Cam Bynum made his first play of the day, and it would be the first of many.

Quarterback Nathan Elliott threw a long pass toward the left sideline, and the sophomore cornerback didn’t let UNC’s big playmaker Anthony Ratliff-Williams gain any separation. Bynum went up and knocked the ball away to force the three-and-out.

It would be the first of seven consecutive drive without a first down for the UNC offense, and Cal’s defense had guys making plays from every portion of the defense. Cornerback Elijah Hicks came up to make a big run stop at the line of scrimmage on the second drive, then Jordan Kunaszyk and Cameron Goode ended the drive with a tackle on the outside after a sweep.

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Bynum made another play on a deep ball on the next drive, sticking with Ratliff-Williams step for step before knocking another pass down. That ended in another three-and-out. On the fourth drive, Zeandae Johnson stopped an outside run at the line of scrimmage, then Goode tipped a pass at the line to end another drive.

It kept going like that, with different players making plays when they needed to. Goode ended the next drive with his second career interception, faking a pass-rush before dropping back and easily snagging Elliott’s pass. He returned it for a touchdown, the second time he’s done that in non-conference play the last two seasons.

Goode made another tackle at the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Evan Weaver, playing as MIKE linebacker in place of the medically retired Gerran Brown, made a stop at the line thanks to Tevin Paul’s pressure. Weaver would set a career-high with 13 tackles. Everyone contributed as the defense held UNC without a first down until nearly nine minutes had expired in the second quarter. On the next play following that initial first down, Elliott badly misfired on a deep ball and safety Ashtyn Davis came away with an easy pick.

They pitched a shutout in the first half, holding UNC to just that one first down and 38 yards while taking the ball away three times.

The Bears took a 17-0 lead into the half, the biggest halftime lead in the Wilcox era, but things got hairy in the second half. Cal opened the second half with a three-play punt of their own, and about nine minutes into the third quarter, UNC finally got on the board.

The Tar Heels continued to make adjustments, particularly using Elliott’s legs to make plays, and Cal had a difficult time making adjustments of their own.

On their first drive of the fourth quarter, UNC was able to start moving the ball on the ground. Elliott started moving around, gaining good chunks on the ground and converting a couple fourth downs to get UNC back into the game. Antonio Williams capped the massive 19-play drive with a three-yard score to make it a two-possession game.

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  • UNC got the ball back and were able to move the ball again, gaining more big chunks on the ground. They got into the endzone to cut the lead down to one score.

    Last season, Cal had issues in the fourth quarter, letting their opponents gain big yardage while not doing much of their own. The same thing started to happen here. The holes for the running game started to get a little bit bigger, the gains becoming longer, and Cal had a difficult time making stops.

    This time, Cal was hurt by the loss of Goode, who suffered an ankle injury on that long UNC drive in the fourth quarter. He didn’t return to the field, and his speed, both in pursuit and coverage, was sorely missed.

    Luckily for the Bears, they were able to build a big enough lead early on that UNC’s late comeback fell short. That won’t always be the case. UNC was missing some big names on their squad, and weren’t a great offensive team last season anyway. The major effort from the defense early on allowed the lead to hold.

    The defense will need help. They forced four takeaways in the game, leading to 14 points, but the offense has to be able to move the ball without a short field. The defense won’t be able to intercept four passes every time out, so Cal has to figure out ways to move the ball for big chunks.

    Cal’s offense will also need to help their defense by staying on the field more. After UNC’s long, 19-play drive in the fourth quarter, which took more than six minutes off the clock, the Bears went three-and-out with their own drive. After spending that much time on the field, the defense needed a bit of time to recollect themselves, but weren’t given very much.

    The talent is there for the Bears, defensively. Weaver and Kunaszyk combined for 20 tackles as the playmaking linebackers. Bynum broke up four passes and provided excellent coverage all day, despite a late penalty and touchdown. Traveon Beck was fantastic at coming up from his spot in the secondary to make plays. Hicks made plays on the outside. Goode was spectacular when he was on the field, and there were many other guys that made plays throughout the day.

    Next. Bowers Back for Seconds against UNC. dark

    Cal’s defense is good, but a team can only be as strong as its weakest link, and right now, the offense certainly looks like the weakest link. It’s a massive turn from recent years when the Bears could put up offensive numbers but not make stops, but Wilcox and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin have to come up with something to move the ball more consistently. The units have to work together better.