Sonny Dyes does get it. Cal's results in his first three games as head coach to the contrary, he knows the importance of defense.
With the Bears giving up points (126, 43 per game) and yards (1669, 533 per game) at a terrifying pace, many Cal followers have Dykes pegged as a one-dimensional coach obsessed by his madcap offense with little regard for or interest in defense. But that is selling the man short. He has shown that from personal experience and simply paying attention he has things in perspective.
“We won a conference championship at Louisiana Tech in year two when we had the best defense in the league. We were incredibly average on offense, were really good on defense and in the kicking game and won a championship,” he said before the Ohio State game Saturday. “Last year's team was one of the best teams in college football history offensively according the numbers, and we didn't win the conference championship because we didn't play good defense.
“At the end of the day, we are going to be successful here only if we are good on defense. Only. I know that, our team knows that and we understand that. All you have to do is look at Oregon. For awhile Oregon was scoring a lot of points and getting a lot of headlines with their offense. But they started winning championships when they got good on defense.”
So it isn't that Dykes de-emphasizes that part of the game. He is probably doing the best with what he has, which is diminishing rapidly. Injuries have been devastating to the Cal defense this season, and in the 52-34 loss to Ohio State last Saturday, several more Bears were hurt.
Players Dykes had hoped to red-shirt this year have been forced onto the field. Others are switching positions. Starting the season Joel Willis was a wide receiver, now he's a cornerback. Jason Gibson was a linebacker, now he's playing safety. Both were among those pressed into action Saturday.
To his credit Dykes says that injuries are “not an excuse.” But he does mention the injuries and the problems of having a very inexperienced defense. They might not be an excuse but they could be a reason.
“We worry about how they are going to respond,” he said of his young defenders. “But at the same time we have a lot of confidence in them and they've got to suck it up and get better.”
With the bye this week the Bears have a chance to heal some wounds and give the new players some extensive practice time. They'll need it. When they play again it will be against Oregon in Eugene. The Ducks were one of the originators of the style of offense Dykes coaches and are pretty good at it. In scoring 58 points against Tennessee last Saturday the Ducks LOWERED their season average to 61 per game.
Then the Bears must entertain Washington State, rejuvenated under Dykes' former mentor at Texas Tech, Mike Leach. After that they go to UCLA, whose stunning victory over Nebraska shows the Bruins are a foe to be reckoned with. The Bears could conceivably be 1-5 by the time Oregon State comes to town Oct. 19.
The defense must improve if the Bears are to better the 3-8 record that got Jeff Tedford fired.
One does have to admire Dykes' imagination and adventurous spirit. In three games he has tried fake field goals, fake punts and an on-sides kick.
The fake punt against Ohio State was particularly inventive as Dykes took advantage of the dual jersey numbers so prevalent in college football. Several numbers are worn by two players, and both quarterback Jared Goff and punter Cole Leininger sport No. 16.
On a 4th-and-8 from the Ohio State 38 late in the first half, Goff lined up in punt formation, assuming Leininger's normal spot. Before the Buckeyes could look through the facemask and see who was really there. Goff had completed an 11-yard pass to defensive back Stefan McClure, a member of the punt team.
That bit of chicanery led to field goal as the half ended. That is one of those trick plays that will work once. Cal opponents from now on will make sure they know which No. 16 is on the field at all times.
One positive that came out of Saturday is the continued success of place kicker Vincenzo D'Amato. He hit both his field goal tries, a 27-yarder and a season-best 43-yarder. His only miss was a 46-yard try against Portland State, and he went into the weekend leading the Pac-12 in field goals made. He looks like the latest in the long line of Cal place kickers that included the Werschings, Jim Breech, Mick Luckhurst, Robbie Keen and Doug Brien.
And a bit of advice to whoever came up with the idea to “Blue and Gold” the stadium by encouraging fans to wear either blue or gold depending where they were sitting. The idea was to have one seating section entirely blue, the next one gold, the next blue, etc. The next time you do it, make sure you have a majority of the fans rooting for your team. Certainly more than half of the capacity crowd Saturday was wearing Ohio State colors, thereby deflating the ambitious idea.