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Cal Football Notebook: It's Not Just the Offense That's Improved - Bears' Defense is Far Better

Cal is allowing just 15.7 points over the past six games through changes and improvement.

Lost among the hoopla over Cal’s offense erupting for 41 points in the Big Game on Saturday is this reality: the Bears’ defense has enjoyed its own metamorphosis over the course of this season.

Here are the raw numbers:

— Through the Bears’ first four games this season, they allowed 29.3 points per game.

— Over the past six games, that number essentially has been cut in half, down to 15.7 points. In three of their past four games, they have given up 11 points or fewer.

“Over the past month, the defense has grown week by week,” said Cal coach Justin Wilcox, whose Bears (4-6, 3-4 Pac-12) face the league’s highest-scoring team Saturday when they visit UCLA (7-4, 5-3) at the Rose Bowl.

The Bears’ statistical jump, which has them virtually tied for the Pac-12 lead, allowing 21.1 points per game, with Washington just a hair better at 21.09. Cal’s growth has come through individual improvement but also personnel changes.

This week’s depth chart shows four different starters than we saw for the Sept. 4 season opener vs. Nevada.

Outside linebacker Kuony Deng and nose guard Stanley McKenzie both were shelved by injuries and inside linebacker Evan Tattersall and cornerback Chigozie Anusiem were beaten out of their starting roles.

Wilcox gives credit to defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon and his aides for “tweaking some things but also making some changes that were necessary.”

Wilcox also says the development by young players earned them opportunities they weren’t ready for after fall camp.

Freshman Lu-Magia Hearns, right, breaks up a pass against Sacramento State

Lu-Magia Hearns (15)

Here’s a look at significant contributors to the defense who were barely on the radar when the season began:

— Cornerback Lu-Magia Hearns III made his first start in Week 7 vs. Colorado and has improved with each game. At Stanford, he had an interception and four pass breakups, earning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors.

— Outside linebacker Marqez Bimage, a grad transfer from Texas, has shown a knack for big plays. He has 7.5 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries (to rank second in the Pac-12) and two forced fumbles.

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— Freshman inside linebacker Nate Rutchena intercepted a pass in his first game against Washington State and has picked off two more since then. Now a starter, he had a career-high 10 tackles in the Big Game.

— Sophomore Jaedon Roberts took over at nose guard in Week 5 after McKenzie went down and has helped solidify the D-line.

— Freshman corner Isaiah Young, in his first extensive action, made four pass breakups against Oregon State.

— Freshman Femi Oladejo collected seven tackles each vs. Oregon and Oregon State.

— Sophomore Trey Paster, a defensive back in high school, started multiple games at inside linebacker and had six tackles vs. Washington State.

“They’ve made our defense better,” Wilcox said.

Just in time for a Bruins team that crushed USC 62-33 last week and has totaled 106 points the past two games.

“Our guys are excited for a challenge like that,” Wilcox said. “They’re a hungry group. They have a ton of respect for who we’re playing and understand it’ll be a great challenge.

“But they’re competitive guys. They want to go play well and I don’t think that’ll be any different this week.”

HEARNS SHARES HISTORY OF HIS NAME: Lu-Magia Hearns III has an unusual first name, but it’s not unique. He is, after all, the third. The freshman cornerback from De La Salle High wants everyone to know Lu-Magia is a hyphenated first name, not his first and middle names.

“The name Magia comes from my grandfather — he’s the first,” Hearns said. “The Lu part comes from my great-grandmother, Lucille. My Dad was born on her birthday. That’s why it’s hyphenated.”

INJURY UPDATE: Running back Damien Moore, who was injured on his only carry at Stanford, and wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter, who did not play in the Big Game, both are day-to-day, Wilcox said.

Starting left offensive tackle Will Craig will miss his second straight game at UCLA with an undisclosed injury.

Cover photo of Cal coach Justin Wilcox

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo