Tough foe for getting back on track
After starting for two years, including being a captain as a junior, Darius Allensworth lost his starting cornerback job at Cal this season.
Instead of pouting and feeling sorry for himself, the 6-foot, 195-pound senior kept fighting, returned a fumble 37 yards for a touchdown last week in Washington and moved back to the top of the depth chart this week.
“He could have easily gone in the tank and become a cancer,” Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said. “… He has responded in a great way.”
Cal is trying to make its season mirror Allensworth’s career, looking to return to the play that led to a 3-0 start and find a way to get past the stinkers that have led to three consecutive losses.
It won’t be easy. Just like Allensworth had to compete with two hotshot freshmen, the Bears will play a third top-10 opponent in a four-week stretch when they meet Washington State on
Friday night in Berkeley.
The Cougars have jumped from a preseason No. 24 ranking to No. 8 behind their perennially potent offense and a surprising defense.
The “Speed D,” as Washington State calls it, is No. 11 in the nation in total defense (allowing 275.5 yards per game), having jumped from rankings of 99th, 94th and 69th the past three seasons. The Cougars rank fifth in the country in takeaways (15) and are tied for No. 4 in defensive touchdowns (three).
The unit’s most impressive numbers come in forcing negative plays. Led by defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa, who leads the Pac-12 with 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss, Washington State is No. 6 in tackles for a loss (49) and No. 7 in sacks (21).
That’s not a good sign for Cal, which didn’t score an offensive touchdown and managed just 93 yards of offense in Saturday’s 38-7 loss at Washington. The Bears have allowed 15 sacks in the past two weeks and combined for minues-32 rushing yards during the stretch.
“It drives me crazy. It drives all of these guys crazy, but it would drive anyone crazy who is a competitor,” said Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, who beat Washington State last year when he was the head coach at Eastern Washington. “… We’ve got to find ways to grow in the second half of the season, and the guys are hungry to do that.”
Cal’s defense has quite a challenge in facing Washington State, too. The Cougars are No. 3 in the nation in passing yards (392.0 per game) and lead the country with an average of 10 players making receptions per game.
Quarterback Luke Falk orchestrates it all. The NCAA’s active leader in career passing yards (12,893) and touchdowns (108), Falk is a projected firstround pick in the NFL.
According to Pro Football Focus’ study of the top 13 drafteligible quarterbacks, Falk ranks second in adjusted completion percentage, third in passer rating versus pressure (111.2), first against the blitz (151.0) and second on short throws (122.1).
He has a bevy of receivers, including Tavares Martin Jr., who is No. 2 in the country with seven touchdowns, and running back James Williams, who is tied for ninth with 41 catches.
“It seems like they make about 80 percent of the catches when they have 50-50 balls,” DeRuyter said. “It’s really impressive to see. … They’ve got a corral of guys who are explosive.”
Allensworth will do his best to help corral that corral.
“The ball is going to be in the air this week, and it’s up to us to battle and win the opportunities we have,” he said. “It hasn’t been the ideal senior season for me, so when I get chances, I know I had to do something with them.
“I’ve been through some stuff in my life that has made me a fighter. Just because the depth chart was what it was going into North Carolina, that didn’t mean it was going to stay the same. The cream always rises to the top. If you’re the best, it’s going to happen for you — if you keep grinding and fighting.” Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron
Washington State’s Luke Falk is third in the country in total yards and first in TD passes.