By Jonathan Okanes
It's September and Cal is facing an opponent that runs the spread offense.
No, it only seems like last year.
Practice must have seemed rather routine for the Bears' defense this week. Cal spent the week preparing to stop Washington State's new no-huddle, spread offense, something the Bears did seemingly before every game the first half of last season.
Four of Cal's first five opponents last year ran either the no-huddle, spread, or combination of both. Considering the Bears have nine starters back on defense, that experience could help against the Cougars.
"I think it's going to help us a lot," Cal safety Marcus Ezeff said. "We're kind of used to it now, so I think we'll be ready."
While the Bears have experience playing against the spread, Washington State doesn't have much experience running it. The offense was introduced this season by new coach Paul Wulff, and the growing pains were evident during last week's season-opening 39-13 loss to Oklahoma State. The Cougars managed just 196 yards of offense and new starting quarterback Gary Rogers threw for only 82 yards on 12-for-24 passing. Washington State didn't cross midfield until the third quarter.
"We're still learning the scheme," Wulff said. "We don't have seasoned players that have been running it for a year-plus. On top of that, we're playing young kids in critical positions. We just don't have that consistency a veteran team would have. We're not veteran with the system and we're not veteran with personnel. That's not a real good combination."
The Cougars' offense may still be a work in progress, but defending it is a challenge no matter how efficient it is because of the unique demands it presents. The Bears will need to utilize their depth to contend with the increased pace of the no-huddle and be ready for the multiple looks and formations the scheme offers.
"In the spread, there are so many things you can do," Cal linebacker Zack Follett said. "If everyone does their job and their responsibility, you'll shut it down."
Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said last year's experience preparing for the spread is most beneficial to the coaching staff. Despite the returners on defense, Gregory said it's still unsettling for the players once they get on the field and try to stop it.
"It still comes down to the players reacting to it and being at ease with it," Gregory said. "It doesn't matter how many guys played. Seeing it for the first time always creates a lot of anxiety. You have to be able to relax, play and communicate."
Cal's defense also is running something new this season. The Bears switched to a base 3-4 defense, but both Gregory and Follett said there isn't much difference between that and the 3-4 in terms of stopping the spread.
Washington State provides a substantially different challenge than what Cal faced in its opener against Michigan State, a power running team. The Bears answered the biggest question about the 3-4 by stopping the Spartans' potent ground game, but even though the Cougars offense is predicated on their passing game, they still have a threat on the ground with junior Dwight Tardy.
"Our run defense is going to have to stay stout against a spread team," Follett said. "We went into last week's game knowing they are going to run the ball, and we stopped it. This time, we can't just get soft on the run. It can be exploited."
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