USC football will look to bulldoze an improved, but still vulnerable Cal Bear defense when they head up north on Halloween.
With USC boasting one of the most explosive offenses in the nation, the Bears will have their hands full. However, there penchant for forcing turnovers could be the difference-maker in the match up. Cal currently leads the nation in takeaways
Here’s a closer look at the Cal defense:
Release the Kragen
If there is a star on the Bear defense, it is without a doubt defensive lineman Kyle Kragen.
The son of former NFL defensive lineman Greg Kragen, his pedigree and production earned him a place on the Bay Area News Group’s midseason All-Pac-12 team and a spot on the watch list for the Ted Hendricks Award, which honors the nations top defensive end.
Kragen is third on the team in tackles this season and leads Cal with five sacks, which is second-best in the conference this season. With Kragen’s contributions, the Bears rank third in the Pac-12 with 20 sacks total.
Coming off the opposite edge, DeVante Wilson has not matched that production, missing two games after Cal’s win over Texas with a foot injury. If Wilson’s name sounds familiar, it should. He began his career at USC before injuries and academic struggles saw him leave the program. After bouncing around at the junior college level, he settled down and earned a scholarship in Berkeley.
Sep 26, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; California Golden Bears cornerback Darius White (6) makes an interception on a pass intended for Washington Huskies wide receiver Marvin Hall (16) during the second quarter at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
With Wilson out, his backups Jonathan Johnson and Todd Barr picked up some of the slack. Wilson has played the last two games and should get a chance to make statement against his former team.
Clogging the middle is a pair of redshirt sophomores, James Looney and Tony Mekari.
The Trojan front has not been their best this season and injuries have changed the make up of the line to add continuity questions to the mix. This week, it is one in and one out. Center Toa Lobendahn was confirmed out for the season with a torn ACL while left tackle Chad Wheeler looks set to return to the line up after missing the Utah game with a concussion.
Wheeler’s return will certainly be a boost with Kragen on the other side of the line, but the Trojans will be hoping that replacement center Khaliel Rodgers will put a steady, mistake-free performance in his first road test.
Disrupting the quarterback has become one of the keys to Cal’s improvement on defense this season, as the secondary has reaped the benefits with cornerback Darius White and safety Damariay Drew nabbing two interceptions each. Cal as a team has plucked 12 passes out of the air already this season, which is second in the Pac-12.
At cornerback, Darius Allensworth picked off a pass against Grambling, but his four pass break ups against UCLA have him second in the Pac-12 in deflections with seven total.
However, there is certainly room for the secondary to be exploited.
The Bears rank among the worst pass defenses in the conference when they aren’t taking the ball away, conceding an average of 259 yards in the air per game.
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It won’t help that safety Stefan McClure, who has battled injuries for much of his career, is in doubt after leaving the UCLA game with a shoulder injury.
Another injury the Bears will be concerned about is that of linebacker Michael Barton, one of the more veteran players on the Cal defense. Barton sprained his knee and is expected to miss Saturday’s contest.
Still, the Bears will be with all three starters in the linebacking corps, including Jalen Jefferson, who has the most career tackles of any active Cal defender.
Hardy Nickerson is second on the team in tackles this season while Cameron Walker has produced two sacks to sit second on the team.
What the stats say
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- Cal’s red zone defense has left plenty to be desired in 2015. In 23 entrances, they have stopped the opposing team from coming away with points just once all season. They rank 124th in the nation on that score. The stats look a bit better when you look at touchdowns conceded in those situations. Cal is boosted to 89th on opponent touchdown percentage in the red zone.
Projected starting lineups: USC football vs. Cal
Cal Defense[table id=60 /]
USC Offense[table id=59 /]