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Cal Football: Absence of Big Plays on Defense Dragging Down A Once-Dominant Unit

The Bears aren't manufacturing turnovers or sacks and can't make third-down stops.

Back in 2018 and ’19, when Cal’s defense established itself as one of the best in the Pac-12, the Bears weren’t merely sound. They were disruptive.

The secondary, which dubbed itself “The Takers,” had 21 interceptions in 2018, returning five of them for touchdowns.

A year later, the Bears collected 36 sacks, the second-best total in the Pac-12.

This year’s team has done a role reversal. Its offense suddenly is flourishing, averaging 28.8 points per game and second in the conference at 441 total yards per outing — and delivering big plays downfield.

The defense has swerved in the opposite direction. Without the three defensive backs who moved on to the NFL the past couple seasons, without 2019 consensus All-America linebacker Evan Weaver, and with green players forced into significant roles, this defense isn’t getting it done.

The Bears are giving up 29.3 points per game to rank 10th in the conference. Some of it is execution and inexperience. But a big component is the Bears’ inability to make big plays.

They are tied for eighth in the Pac-12 in sacks with six in four games, and have just one in their past two outings. Arizona State and Utah each have 12 sacks.

And the Bears are ninth in takeaways with just four — three interceptions one fumble recovery. Oregon tops the Pac-12 with 12 and this week’s opponent. Washington State, has 10 takeaways.

“It’s a huge part of playing great defense,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox says in the video at the top of this story. “Rushing the quarterback, taking the ball away.

“It’s very difficult to play great defense without either of those two,” Wilcox said.

There’s more to it, Wilcox says, and it’s not good news for the Bears.

“The other one I would bring up is third down defense,” he says. “And we haven’t been up to the standard we’ve been in the past.”

Cal, in fact, is last in the Pac-12 and 118th out of 130 FBS teams nationally in third-down defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to convert 47 percent of their chances for first downs.

All of that creates a recipe that does not lend itself to success on the defensive side of the ball.

“We’ve seen it in stretches,” he says. “In the second half (at Washington) it was much more noticeable how we affected the quarterback in the pass game. Also much more competitive on the ball in coverage.

“So we saw glimpses of that. . . . We just have to do it with some consistency.”

Cal trailed 21-10 at halftime against Washington, then limited the Huskies to three points in the third and fourth quarters before finally losing 31-24 in overtime.

It wasn’t a question of a special, new scheme, just better execution. “There really is no magic,” Wilcox says, noting that the interior defensive line played better as the game wore on.

He also had praise for senior outside linebacker Cameron Goode, whose numbers so far this season are solid but unspectacular. He has 19 tackles and a team-best three tackles for loss.

“I really think Cameron Goode throughout the entire season and again on Saturday night has been a very impactful player,” he says. “Cam consistently has impacted the game, especially the pass game, making it hard on the offense.

“Cameron is playing at a high level right now.”

Photo of Daniel Scott making an end zone interception against Sacramento State by Darren Yamashita, USA Today

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