One of Cal head coach Jeff Tedford’s main contributions to the Golden Bear defense was to insist on more help from his safeties in the passing game. But that ideal may be thrown out the window Saturday against UCLA.
After surrendering 176 yards to USC tailback Sultan McCullough and with the sometimes-smashmouth UCLA Bruins up this weekend, Tedford will likely ask defensive coordinator Bob Gregory to sneak at least one safety near the line of scrimmage, or “in the box,” for the majority of the game. UCLA is averaging 161 yards per game on the ground, second in the Pac-10, and has a trio of talented tailbacks that can carry the ball. The breakout star thus far has been freshman Tyler Ebell, who has rushed for 322 yards in UCLA’s last two games, but backups Akil Harris and Manuel White are also capable of breaking big plays.
Even in the pass-happy Pac-10, the running game is still a top priority for most teams.
“Every game our emphasis is on stopping the run,” Cal linebacker Paul Ugenti said. “We want to force teams to pass on us to make yardage.”
Of course, UCLA also has some talented receivers who are capable of making big plays as well. Moving a safety out of the coverage scheme will leave Cal’s cornerback’s in one-on-one situations against wideouts Craig Bragg and Tab Perry, as well as create a seam for tight end Mike Seidman. That trio has combined to catch 11 touchdowns this season.
If Gregory does indeed put an extra defender in the box against UCLA, Cal’s cornerbacks are confident they handle whatever UCLA throws at them. After all, they were left in similar situations for the past two seasons in former defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich’s aggressive defense.
“It won’t be much different from what I’m used to,” cornerback James Bethea said. “That’s all I’ve done since I got here.”
Throwing a monkey wrench into the mix is the absence of backup cornerback Harrison Smith, who is out for the season with a broken shoulder. That leaves only special-teams maven Mike McGrath as a backup, although rover Nnamdi Asomugha has been seeing time on the corner in an attempt to match up with bigger wide receivers.
But when Asomugha is at cornerback, true freshman Donnie McCleskey steps into the all-important rover spot, and his inexperience and lack of speed could hurt the Bears. It’s a tough call: leave Asomugha at his normal position and hope Bethea and Jemeel Powell can play big, or put in McCleskey and live with freshman mistakes. If Asomugha lines up at rover, it’s more likely Gregory will keep him back in coverage to protect his cornerbacks and hope the Bears front seven can improve on last week’s effort.
“It’d be nice to know we have more support from the back row, but our main objective is to stop them in the front,” defensive end Tully Banta-Cain said. “Hopefully we can play well enough that we don’t need extra guys to help us.”
Notes: Tedford said junior wide receiver Chase Lyman may finally be ready to play following a hamstring injury, but Lyman may choose to utilize his redshirt year. With starter Geoff McArthur still affected by a nagging leg injury, Lyman is needed for depth. “I think he’s ready to play, but I can’t force him to get in there,” Tedford said. “I want him to contribute to the team this season, but he doesn’t want to use a year [of eligibility] for just five games.”... Tailback Joe Echema, who was the top runner in spring camp, is on the comeback from a severe knee injury suffered in the fall. Echema had set Saturday’s game as a target return date, but likely won’t play at all this season... Tedford had an hour-long conversation with a Pac-10 official concerning the officiating at last weekend’s loss to USC. USC wide receiver Kareem Kelly was credited with a touchdown catch that was clearly a blown call, and there were several other plays Tedford felt were blown... Cal quarterback Kyle Boller will set a school record with his next touchdown pass. Boller is tied with Pat Barnes with 54.