John Hefti - USA Today
The crux of Washington State's improvement over the past few years has been on the defensive side of the ball, as Alex Grinch has taken a swiss cheese unit, and turned them into the 'Speed D,' anchored by a tenacious defensive lineman in Hercules Mata'afa.
The Wazzu defense is undersized compared to some of their Pac-12 counterparts, with Mata'afa listed at 252 lbs, and the starting nose, Daniel Ekuale, being the biggest member of the starting defense by 53 lbs over Mata'afa (at 305). Only four players on the depth chart are over 250 lbs, two of them being nose guards.
The Cougars make it work, with over 8 tackles for loss per game (Mata'afa has 10 already, which tops the conference), forcing 15 turnovers (8 interceptions, 7 fumbles), and producing 3.5 sacks per game. They've limited teams through the air especially, allowing 146.3 yards per game, with an adaptive defense that forces mistakes and only allows 4.5 yards per game.
Just from this, it's a 4-2-5 base that can shift into a 3-3-5. They can vary odd and even fronts. Though their DBs are all listed under 200 lbs, they still tackle well, as safety Jalen Thompson leads the team in tackles (34, with 3 INTs as well), and they can come down in the box to help in run support.
They loaded the box early against Oregon, and forced an inexperienced QB to try to make throws over the top, something they'll likely do with Ross Bowers.
One thing the coaching staff has noted was the shifting nature of the Wazzu defense, as they can move the linemen around and bring blitzes from different places.
Coverage wise, they don't do any one things specifically. Some man coverages, some zone, some press, some playing off. They're multifaceted, and while the corners aren't the biggest, they're still talented enough to cover extremely well.
A big one is that Payton Pelleur, the top Wazzu linebacker from a year ago went out for the year after the Oregon State game.
Nnamdi Oguayo was out for the previous game against Oregon (starter at DE, 3 sacks on the year), and Isaac Dotson (starter at MLB, 30 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) went out during the first quarter of that game.
Corner Darrien Molton (hurt his arm, came back with a cast, starter at one corner) and linebacker Nate DeRyder (22 tackles, 1.5 TFLs) also were injured during the Oregon game.
Beau Baldwin on the Cougar defender:
"He’s impressive. He moves, obviously he’s undersized for the position, but he does not let that take away from him being a really really good football. Just the slipperyness, the quickness, and just the ability to get off things is impressive."
Justin Wilcox on Mata'afa:
Really explosive active guy, he creates a lot of negative plays, he’s real tough to block, and he plays extremely hard. He wins a lot, they do some movement and things to get people to the quarterback, but he wins a lot in terms of one on one matchups, he’s winning.
Keys for Cal:
- Taking advantage in the run game. Even though the status of Patrick Laird is in doubt after he left last Saturday's game, the Bears will have to find a way to run the ball. Whether that means Bowers keeping the ball on read plays or using Malik McMorris more as a lead blocker, or running in advantageous situations against a five man box, the Bears have to find a way to run the ball against a strong defense and execute in one on one situations.
- Rollout. The Cal offensive line has had trouble protecting the quarterback, and a way to solve that is to roll the quarterback out, which gives him a simpler one side of the field read and helps get the ball out a little sooner as well. The Bears will have to do that, even if it's for shorter gains on 1st and second downs.
- Make 3rd downs easy. This is a bit of a connection from the first two points, but the Bears have to start converting on 3rd downs, and that comes from helping themselves through the run game, protecting the quarterback and being consistent. There's anger among the team from their performances over the past couple weeks, they need to put that into action.