Ever see a pride of lions go after a downed gazelle? How about sharks in a feeding frenzy? Try watching the Cal defensive line go after a quarterback.
Watch ends Tully Banta-Cain and Tom Canada speed around offensive tackles like they were lampposts. Take a peek at the Bears’ defensive tackles, bulling their way into the pocket. Look at Josh Gustaveson and Jamaal Cherry, fighting past blocks to maul the passer.
So far this season, Cal’s defensive linemen have recorded 23 1/2 of the team’s 26 sacks in eight games. Now compare that to last season, when the entire defense managed just 25 sacks in 11 games. Looking for the key to the Bears’ turnaround this season? We may just have found it.
“It’s great to watch the tape every week and see our guys getting off the ball so well,” head coach Jeff Tedford said. “I really believe that our depth is helping us by keeping guys fresh throughout the game.”
Ah, depth. Not something associated with Cal football for the last few years. But this year’s line is so deep, some talented players hardly ever get on the field come game time. Junior college transfer Monte Parson has played only a few snaps this season, but even he managed to take down a quarterback in his limited action.
In all, eight defensive linemen have recorded a sack this season, and that list doesn’t include starting tackle Daniel Nwangwu or backup Lorenzo Alexander, probably the most talented of the interior linemen. There are big-play guys and pluggers, no-names and touted recruits in the group that has been the most productive in the Pac-10 this season.
First-year defensive line coach Ken Delgado said before the season he hoped to play his starters the majority of the time, both to put his starters in a comfort zone and to give more value to winning the job. But with such a deep group Delgado has started rotating his players more liberally, with good results.
“I think [Delgado] has realized that we can win with any of our D-linemen,” Banta-Cain said. “He needs all of us to get the job done. You have to make the best of the opportunity when you’re in there.”
The Bears have had different heroes step up seemingly every week. Banta-Cain, a pass-rush specialist, came up with four sacks against New Mexico State, a game in which Alexander blocked a punt. Canada was Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week following last Saturday’s 2 1/2 sack, two forced fumble performance against UCLA, while Jamaal Cherry came up with a key field goal block. Cherry had 2 1/2 sacks in the road upset of Michigan State, and the line combined for five sacks in a defeat of Washington.
In the pass-happy Pac-10 Conference, putting pressure on the opposing quarterback is the key to winning, and the Bears have done so with consistency and fervor. UCLA finished last week’s game with its top two quarterbacks sidelined by injuries, both coming from hits by the Cal defensive line, and the Bears have racked up at least three sacks in six of their eight games.
Banta-Cain is the most recognizable of the linemen with his exceptional speed off the edge, which will likely get him drafted into the NFL this spring. The team leader with eight sacks this year, the same number he had last season, the senior also has 14 1/2 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. Canada is similar, a speed rusher who tries to get around offensive linemen rather than through them, and he has six sacks and three forced fumbles despite missing three games due to an academic issue. Gustaveson and Cherry both have 2 1/2 sacks, while tackle Josh Beckham has two.
But despite their improved individual numbers, the linemen agree that the team’s overall improvement is more important.
“It’s more satisfying when everyone can contribute to a win,” Banta-Cain said. “I can’t explain how good it feels to be winning all these games.”
Even the guys with a zero in the all-important sack column were glowing after beating UCLA.
“I’m still missing that sack everyone else has, but I’ll take the wins instead,” Alexander said.
Notes: Tedford apologized Tuesday for remarks made concerning wide receiver Chase Lyman last week. Tedford said last Tuesday he thought Lyman was healthy but the junior was reluctant to use a year of eligibility for less than half of a season. Tedford said this week Lyman is still hampered by the hamstring injury that has kept him out all season. “It’s a lesson well-learned,” Tedford said. “I shouldn’t leave a player alone on an ilsand like that.”