Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory already was sick of talking about last season, and then came this week, which brings Washington to Strawberry Canyon. The Huskies completely manhandled the Bears and ran for 360 yards last year in winning 37-23 in Seattle. "It was the worst game since we've been here. They flat-out kicked our fannies. They did a great job, and we were absolutely terrible," said Gregory, who is in his seventh season in Berkeley. "How come you want to talk about last year? Can't we talk about what we're doing this year?" Well, to really understand just how well the defense has played this season, it takes a look back at how bad it was last year. Cal has improved in every statistical category on the defensive side, and, even more impressive, has completely changed the attitude of the unit. "We're a family right now, and families stick together through thick and thin," sophomore defensive tackle Derrick Hill said. "Last year, we were a bunch of individual groups, pointing fingers at each other." There were plenty of fingers to be pointed after last year's loss to last-place Washington. The Huskies called for running plays on 16 of their first 18 snaps, and despite knowing what was coming, the Bears couldn't stop it.
Louis Rankin ran for 125 of his 224 yards in the first quarter and averaged 10.7 yards a carry in the game. After Rankin had embarrassed Cal enough, Washington subbed in Brandon Johnson, who promptly bulled his way to 121 yards on 5.3 yards a try. Rankin hasn't been able to make the 53-man roster in Oakland, one of the NFL's worst offenses. Johnson has totaled 194 yards and averaged 2.6 yards a carry in nine collegiate games this year. "It was pitiful. I felt like trash after that game," Hill said. "That was probably the worst feeling I've ever had after a game, and we can't ever let that happen again." Cal hasn't let it happen again. In fact, a defense that didn't rank among the nation's top 37 in a single category last year, ranks among the top 18 in nine categories this year.
The most striking changes have come when it matters most: getting the ball back. Cal is second in the nation in interceptions with 21 after having 10 and ranking 90th all of last season. It ranks ninth in third-down conversions and sixth on fourth downs (both under 30 percent) after being 57th and 109th last year. The Bears are No. 2 in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score on only 65 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line, after yielding points on 81 percent of such trips in 2007.
"We realized that we had to change our attitudes and listen to what our coaches were saying," senior inside linebacker Worrell Williams said. "We have to be offended if a guy beats us. We should feel horrible if we're not doing our job. We should take everything personally on defense."
Williams has been a big part of a defense, which switched to the 3-4 alignment has been designed to make big plays. Cal jumped 76 spots in the national rankings in tackles for losses, 70 spots in sacks and 54 in turnovers caused. The players give credit to Gregory, the architect of the switch. Though he was beaten up by fan chat rooms last season, the modest defensive coordinator doesn't want recognition and isn't laughing just yet. "I don't think about things like that. I'm just proud of the fact that the guys have progressed and improved," he said. "I don't read the papers, I don't even know how to get on a blog and I don't pay attention to what's being said. "I just feel really good that our guys are playing extremely hard and giving us a chance."
Gregory shoots the acclaim to defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson and secondary coach Al Simmons. He says the culture of the team really changed this season when head coach Jeff Tedford started stressing a number of psychological themes. Tedford, however, calls the defense the "heart and soul" of this year's team, and has repeatedly said that the unit has won games while the offense has stalled. Gregory doesn't want his players to hear that. "Believe me, it's been the other way around: They've had to score points because of us," Gregory said. "Instead of looking at the games when the offense struggled, I point to Maryland and Arizona. If we would have done a better job, we might have won a couple more games. "It all goes around in a team game."