Cal: Improved defense will get stern challenge
Cal cornerback Darius Allensworth knew the answer to the question was so obvious that he couldn’t even bring himself to pull off a comedic pause.
Asked to name the best running back in the Pac-12, Allensworth joked that it is his best friend, Washington State’s Jamal Morrow, before quickly turning his attention to the intended target.
“Bryce Love is definitely one of the best backs in the nation,” Allensworth said of the Stanford tailback. “Kudos to him for what he’s done this season to put himself in the Heisman watch. “It’s special.” In successive weeks, the Bears have gotten firsthand looks at three of the conference’s top runners: Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, Colorado tailback Phillip Lindsay and Oregon State power back Ryan Nall.
On Saturday, they’ll face the best of the bunch. Love leads the nation with 180.2 rushing yards per game, leads Power 5 running backs with 15 rushing touchdowns and is close to leading the history of the sport with 9.0 yards per carry (Chuck Weatherspoon averaged 9.3 in 1989).
The 5-foot-10, 196-pound junior is coming off his third Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week award after running for 166 yards and three touchdowns against Washington, a defense that previously had given up three rushing scores all season.
“Oh man, he’s really, really talented,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox, who, even after spending the previous 16 seasons as one of the nation’s rising defensive assistants, couldn’t come up with a fitting comparison for Love. “He’s got great balance, vision and patience. His top-end speed is elite. …
“He’s playing on a bit of bum ankle, from all of the reports, but he sure doesn’t look like it.”
The recent history doesn’t bode well for Cal’s chances of slowing down Love, but this season’s team has shown signs of its lofty goal of changing the paradigm. The Bears have lost seven straight games to Stanford and led for only five minutes, 35 seconds during the past five.
Within that five-game span, Cal has yielded Big Game rushing records (Christian McCaffrey, 284 rushing yards on 9.2 yards per carry in 2016) and Big Game scoring records (63 points allowed and 50-point margin in 2013).
But the Bears limited Tate, Lindsay and Nall, who have combined for 31 rushing touchdowns this season, to one rushing score among them during the past three weeks. That’s a small sample of what seems to be a seasonlong trend.
Last year, Cal finished among the nation’s bottom five in per-game averages of points allowed (42.6), total yards allowed (518.0) and rushing yards allowed (272.9), and dead last out of 128 teams in rushing yards allowed per carry (6.2).
This year, the Bears have allowed 29.4 points per game, 431.9 total yards per game and 170.7 rushing yards per game. They’ve leaped half of the nation to get to No. 63, having allowed 4.3 yards per carry.
“You’ve got to do it over and over and over again,” said Wilcox, who has purposefully avoided watching video or studying the stats of last year’s historically bad defense since coming to Berkeley in January. “... We don’t really compare players or teams that way. It’s about: How good can we possibly be?”
Love will provide quite a touchstone Saturday.