Cal's defense looked a lot like it did in the past last Saturday against Arizona. That's a good thing, because the future is about to get a little problematic.
The Bears brought back memories of last year's dominant defense in their 24-16 win over the Wildcats. They'll need that kind of dominance in Saturday's Big Game at Stanford when they face arguably the hottest offense in the country.
"You're always still growing, trying to find that right mix and all that kind of stuff," Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. "For whatever reason, it clicked on Saturday and hopefully it will keep clicking."
The Wildcats came into Saturday's game with the Pac-10's leading offense (448.6 yards per game), but the Bears limited them to 274 yards.
Shutting offenses down became routine last season, when Cal finished with the 23rd-ranked defense in the country.
Although the Bears lost their trio of star linebackers — Zack Follett, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder — some believed Cal's defense would be even stronger this season with the entire defensive line and secondary returning, as well as a new crop of talented but inexperienced linebackers ready to make an impact.
For most of the season, that hasn't been the case. Even with Saturday's performance, the Bears still rank seventh in the Pac-10 in total defense (372.8 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (22.4 ppg).
"We didn't have doubt at all," Cal linebacker Devin Bishop said. "We just had to make sure that every week we got better. Sometimes in football, things aren't going to go in your favor. What you have to do is put it behind you and keep moving forward."
The Bears better move forward with care. Stanford is 10th in the country in scoring (36.1 ppg) and has averaged 507.7 yards of offense over its past four games. The Cardinal has scored more than 50 points in each of its past two games, against Oregon and USC.
"Those games are no fluke," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "They were dominating performances. It's probably the most impressive thing I've seen as far as their performance against SC and Oregon. That's not easy to do."
The Bears' task on defense starts with slowing down Heisman Trophy candidate Toby Gerhart, who leads the Pac-10 and ranks third nationally in rushing (139.5 ypg). One of the things Cal's defense has done well in recent weeks is stop the run, but Gerhart presents a combination of strength and speed unlike anything the Bears have seen.
At 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Gerhart possesses the toughness to shed tackles but also the elusiveness to make tacklers miss altogether. And when he gets into open space, Gerhart has enough speed to get down the field.
"He's like a big old thoroughbred horse," Gregory said. "He's different because he's so big and strong. He's different than the other guys we've seen. I don't know that you can stop him. I think you just have to try to slow him down a little bit. If you can do that, maybe you have a chance."
But it's not just Gerhart the Bears have to be concerned about. Andrew Luck has emerged as one of the Pac-10's top quarterbacks as a redshirt freshman. He leads the conference in pass efficiency (151.8) and has demonstrated the ability to make a variety of throws while also escaping the pocket when necessary. And the Cardinal's offensive front, bolstered by tight end Jim Dray and fullback Owen Marecic, arguably is the best in the conference.
"We have to dominate up front," said Cal defensive end Tyson Alualu, whom Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh called the best defensive lineman in the Pac-10. "We have to play smart. Everybody is coming along and we're getting better. But the main thing we have to do is just not let Stanford run over us and play smart at the same time."
So it's easy to see why Cal's defensive resurgence last week is good timing. For the first time this season, Cal's defense looked like it did last year. The Bears stuffed the run, flew to the ball and defended the pass down the field. Now they challenge is to duplicate those accomplishments Saturday.
"We've had moments," Gregory said. "We played a little bit better early in the season, but I don't know if our opponents earlier in the season were as good as Arizona. I feel good about how we played. Hopefully, it will carry over to this week."
HOW THEY stack up
Here is how Stanford's offense compares to Cal's defense. (Number in parentheses is how they rank in the Pac-10)
Scoring 36.1 (2) 22.4 (6)
Rushing 222.4 (2) 104.1 (2)
Passing 223.2 (5) 268.7 (9)
Total offense 445.6 (1) 372.8 (7)