Cal: Im­proved de­fense will get stern chal­lenge

San Francisco Chronicle - - SPORTING GREEN - By Rusty Sim­mons

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.

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