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Behind Enemy Lines: California Golden Bears football

What should we expect from Justin Wilcox’s Bears?

Arizona v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

California Golden Blogs took some time this week to let us know a little bit more about the Cal team coming to Boulder Saturday. Check out our answers to their questions (and their great image choice) over at California Golden Blogs.

1. Some CU fans threw out Tim DeRuyter as a name to look at for DC when Jim Leavitt departed. He’s obviously been working out well for Cal. What makes him so successful and how has Cal been able to produce so many turnovers?

Leland Wong: DeRuyter's success has come from his 3-4 scheme where the play can be markedly different than the pre-snap look. Bears sitting on the line can drop into coverage. Defensive backs will disguise their true assignments. Corners will blitz the quarterback. This misdirection renders pre-snap analysis totally useless; what should be an integral tool for the offensive line and the quarterback gets diminished because the pre-snap look becomes irrelevant. Consequently, the offense is ill-prepared to counter the defensive scheme that ends up confronting them.

Luck certainly plays a role in turnovers (which way a fumble bounces or where a tipped ball flies), but the 2017 Cal defense takes proactive measures to generate turnovers to the point where they deserve to be called takeaways. Defenders go for strips or punch the ball out of the offense's hands. DeRuyter preaches the importance of having Golden Bears swarm the ball, resulting in more bodies in the area to recover fumbles and to dive for tipped balls. It's a fantastically fun style of defense to watch.

boomtho: First, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Wilcox is also quite involved in the defense... so I'll address what both men have done—together—to turn around last year's train wreck on defense.

First, they've been very creative, without being reckless, about generating pressure. Cal doesn't have any naturally dominant DL—especially at edge rusher—so instead of a binary approach of either staying super-conservative (rushing three) or super aggressive, they've been really smart in where they send the fourth or fifth rusher from. At times this season, the CBs, OLBs, and ILBs have all been really effective at getting to the quarterback.

Second, the DBs have built off the depth generated last year to form a pretty formidable group, even though there's no elite top-end corner on the roster. Cameron Goode, Camryn Bynum, Darius Allensworth, and Elijah Hicks have all had really nice moments this year making plays on the ball, including some very impressive turnovers against WSU and passes defensed against Ole Miss.

In terms of turnovers, honestly, I'd say Cal has been a bit fortunate on a few. What underpins the rest is opportunistic pressure (while still having 6–8 in coverage), swarming to the ball, and shockingly improved ball skills from the DB's.

2. Cal seems to be a completely different team on the road and at home. Is there any explanation for this other than the level of competition?

Leland Wong: I would argue the Bears are pretty consistent independent of where we play. Cal is 1–2 on the road and 3–2 at home; the sample size is small, but that's nearly 50–50. Our biggest win at home—against Washington State—came from great defensive planning rather than any kind of hometown voodoo.

Cal did play particularly bad on the road at Washington and Oregon. A loss to the former was predicted, but the offense was so out-of-sync and had completely lost all swagger; the Oregon loss was inexplicable because they lost their starting running back and two quarterbacks, but the defense still couldn't get a stop. These two teams are known for having unforgiving crowds, so maybe it did play a factor.

boomtho: The level of competition is obviously one, but another factor to mention is that Cal is a young team. It's natural that the team feels more comfortable and looser in front of the home fans. I don't think there's any major home/road splits at work here, though—just a young Cal team, growing into a new scheme, and being inconsistent at times.

3. Justin Wilcox seems to be the opposite of Sonny Dykes in almost every way. How has he changed the product on the field so drastically so quickly?

Leland Wong: This is as surprising to you as it was to Cal fans. It's remarkable to see that the new staff unearthed this kind of defense out of the players who were part of a historically bad team last year—with some key players from that team out with injury, no less. Wilcox has two key philosophies that you hear the whole team echo to the point it's clear that this mantra is becoming ingrained in the team culture.

First, is an expectation to win. I'm not one to believe in the mumbo-jumbo of positive thinking, but maybe that's manifesting in more confident play here. The second is to disregard factors that are out of the team's control and to focus on what they can impact. Crazy start time? Oppressive weather? Endless season-ending injuries? All out of the team's hands, so out of the team's minds. Rather than whining about that stuff, the team focuses on their performance and it seems to be paying off immensely.

boomtho: Honestly, it's remarkable the turnaround Wilcox and the staff have driven in such a short amount of time.

In no particular order, a few contributing factors:

-Wilcox hired an experience DC in DeRuyter, who knows how to run a program and a defense

-DB's coach Gerald Alexander has instilled a ton of confidence in the DBs and has really helped them in their ability to close and make plays on the ball

-The staff has generated some pretty great depth at LB, which has partially offset the loss of standout performer Devante Downs

-Last, they've gotten good contributions from some younger guys, like Tevin Paul on the DL

4. Is the Bear Raid still in full force or does Beau Baldwin like to mix it up a bit more?

Leland Wong: The offense uses huddles and the quarterback goes under center and after four years of the Bear Raid, I don't remember what those things are or why the team does them. Most of the snaps still come out of the shotgun and with four receivers (in large part due to an injury to who-should-have-been-our-starting tight end), but Baldwin will balance more with personnel (H-backs, fullbacks, and tight ends) and run plays. There are fewer deep passes (although that may be due to yet another season-ending injury to our speedster Demetris Robertson) and the offense isn't 73% screen plays, but there are still a lot of similarities.

boomtho: The Bear Raid is officially dead, killed by a combination of the new coaching staff and attrition of the foundational talent that made the Bear Raid work. Baldwin has always been known as someone who maximizes the talent on staff, so if he'd inherited Jared Goff or Davis Webb, we'd be airing it out a lot more. Instead, he took over an offense with a new QB, relatively new OL, and good skill position depth... which was promptly hit hard with the loss of Demtris Robertson, Melquise Stovall, and Tre Watson.

Given all that context, you'll see a couple things that will stand out as different than last year:

-Better run/pass balance

-Fewer audibles/QB reads at the line

-More rollouts (to read half the field) and simple plays to help QB Ross Bowers build some confidence

-Fewer vertical shots (both due to Bowers' arm talent and the WR corps)

5. Who are your players to watch on offense? Defense?

Leland Wong: WR Kanawai Noa isn't flashy, but he's a gritty, dependable option. The offense refers to him as their secret weapon and QB Ross Bowers will have to get the ball in Noa's hands for the offense to gain some momentum. Look for him on third downs in particular.

Defensively, look out for ILB Jordan Kunaszyk. Kunaszyk was just coming back from injury when star ILB Devante Downs suffered a season-ending lower-body injury, so his role in the defense has expanded abruptly. After earning three formal Player of the Week honors in the win over Wazzu (plus an uber-prestigious shout-out from Kirk Herbstreit and we should be as thankful for that as we are that ESPN blesses us with coverage), I expect Kunaszyk to be asked to do everything on the field—from tackling Phillip Lindsay to getting after whichever quarterback gets named starter.

boomtho: On offense, I'll mention RB Patrick Laird as a jack of all trades (he's effective both running and passing but shouldered an enormous 33 touches against Arizona) and WRs Vic Wharton (as the outside threat) and Kanawai Noa (the underneath slot receiver).

On defense, I'll mention DL James Looney (undersized yet effective against both runs and passes) and the full CB squad (Allensworth, Goode, Bynum, and Hicks).

6. How do you see this game playing out?

Leland Wong: This won't be an easy win by any means and I wouldn't be surprised to see Colorado get out to a first-half lead, but I anticipate the Bears to come out with a close win, 31–28

boomtho: After predicting big Cal losses the last two games, I think this is a much more even—or dare I say, Cal-favored—match-up.

I think Cal wins something like 31–21.