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WSU Defense Will Focus on Jaydn Ott, So How Will Cal Adjust?

Bears must be creative in getting their prized freshman the ball, and QB Jack Plummer must provide a passing threat
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The one negative aspect of Jaydn Ott’s 274-yard rushing game last week against Arizona is that the next opponent, Washington State, will be geared up to stop him.

“That would make sense,” said Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. “He’s our catalyst. He sets the table for us. And I would think that makes sense to focus on him.”

You can’t rush for more yards in a game than any other player in the country this season and figure no one will notice. Just listen to what the Washington State coach and a Cougars player said about the issue earlier this week.

“Their tailback is going to be a budding star in this league, just as a freshman,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said. “Even his role has grown over the first four games. He’s been explosive.  He can get on a linebacker matched out in space in the pass game, take you up top. There’s a lot of things that he creates mismatches for.

“I think the biggest thing is one guy just can’t tackle him. We got to make sure we’re keeping him bottled up. And because of that, I think he’s like eight yards per carry [8.3, to be exact], so he’s hitting the big play, so he has the ability not just to make people miss, but take it the distance when he breaks out, so you group tackle guys like that."

Cougars edge defender Brennan Jackson is getting the message.

“He’s a fantastic player,” Jackson said of Ott. “He’s a true freshman and doing some great stuff over there. It’s going to be very important to contain him, not let him get his stride early in the game, get some TFLs on him, get him kind of rattled as well. With running backs like that who are building on confidence from last week, it’s going to be important to shut that down early in the game. We can’t let him get comfortable.

“He’s a great downhill runner, he’s got some elusiveness and really good top-end speed, so making sure that we can’t get him opened up in an open lane or what not, make sure we get him in the backfield and start really swarming on him early.”

OK, the Cougars’ defense is going to be game-planning to stop Ott. So what does Cal do in response?

Two things.

First, Musgrave must find alternative ways to get the most out of Ott.

“Well, we’ve got to do a good job of continuing to put him in position to be successful,” Musgrave said. “Probably similar to my three years at Minnesota [in the NFL] when people definitely focused on Adrian Peterson, and yet we still work long and hard as coaches to get him his touches and getting a running back his touches so he can still have some air in the front. And we account for the pressures, and the exoticness, and the eight- and nine-man boxes, but still be able to skin that cat in a number of ways so we can get our running back free.”

In the second of Musgrave’s three years as the Vikings offensive coordinator, Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards and was the MVP of the league.

Ott has already shown that he is a good receiver, even on deep patterns, if he is matched up against a linebacker, so there are some options

The second thing that comes into play is the Bears’ passing game and quarterback Jack Plummer.

The situation could be similar to the one Cal faced four years ago, albeit for a different reason. In 2018 Cal started three different players at quarterback trying to find a passing threat that never really materialized. Opposing defenses loaded up box to stop the run game, daring the Bears to try to win through the air.

This time, the opposition’s concern is the big-play running threat of Ott, and although Plummer has been fairly effective, he will bear more of the responsibility if defenses gang up on Ott.

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Plummer is aware of this and realizes more of the onus is on him.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “But you can still run the ball if they have one-high safety defenses, but, yeah, whenever you get a one-high safety defense, you’re leaving our big, beautiful wide receivers out there on an island, so maybe we’ll have to step up to the plate in the game, myself and the wide receivers. I think that’s something we’re comfortable with. But we’ll adjust to whatever teams do to us.”

Musgrave agrees.

“When Jack has an opportunity in the pass game, we got to make it count,” he said.

Of course, whenever the running game is a threat, the play-action pass is more effective.

“The play-action game is always better when you’re running the ball well,” Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said.

The fact that Cal rolled up 354 rushing yards against Arizona was a major reason Plummer was not sacked in that game and usually threw from a clean pocket. The previous week, against Notre Dame, Cal managed just 82 rushing yards from its running backs, and Plummer was sacked six times and was harried on nearly every drop back.

Make no mistake, Cal will try to run the ball against Washington State, using Ott and its other running backs.

Washington State has been one of the best teams in the conference against the run this season, allowing 3.19 yards per attempt, which is third best in the conference. And the Cougars limited Wisconsin’s strong ground game to 4.0 yards per carry. 

But last week Oregon was able to average 5.6 yards per rushing attempt, and its top two backs, Bucky Irving and Noah Whittingham, averaged 7.4 yards and 6.3 yards per carry, respectively.

The Cougars will be determined not let that happen against Cal, which must find an effective response. 

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Cover photo of Cal quarterback Jack Plummer is by Darren Yamashita, USA TODAY Sports

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