SEATTLE – Lost among the piles of absurd statistics stemming from California’s 60-59 victory over Washington State last week is a particularly telling number.
That number, strange as it might sound after such a game, is one. As in, WSU recorded just one sack against Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff, who threw comfortably for 527 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions while completing 37 of his 53 pass attempts.
Through five games, Cal (4-1, 2-1 in Pac-12) has allowed eight sacks, or one every 24 pass attempts. Goff, the nation’s third-leading passer and a talented quarterback under any circumstance, is even more effective when he can stand in the pocket and dissect defenses in coach Sonny Dykes’ version of the Air Raid offense.
So the Washington Huskies, who visit Cal on Saturday (3 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), know that slowing Cal’s offense – all of a sudden one of the best in the country through six weeks – will require a consistent pass rush.
“Whether it’s him or any quarterback, we want them to feel us,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s got to be sacks or hits, but we’ve got to be around them and that guy’s got to feel the rush, whether you’re bringing three, four or five guys. As much as we can distract him and make him get off his spot and feel uncomfortable, the better.”
And that’s something the Huskies (4-1, 0-1) have done as well as anything this season. Their average of four sacks per game is tied for third-best nationally, and Utah is the only team in the country that has played only five games and has more sacks (28) than UW.
The Huskies’ pass-rushing effort has been led by a familiar name and a surprising one. Hau’oli Kikaha, who tallied 13 sacks in 2013, already has seven this season, a figure that has him in a three-way tie for third-most in the country.
He’s tied with Huskies nose tackle Danny Shelton, who also leads the team in tackles per game with 9.2 (46 total). To put those numbers in perspective, Shelton had 2.5 sacks – total – in his first three seasons, and set a single-season high in tackles last year with 59.
In Washington’s defensive scheme, Shelton’s job as a 6-foot-2, 339-pound behemoth is to clog the middle of the opponent’s offensive line and allow the Huskies’ linebackers to scrape down and clean up whatever’s left. Double-teams are common. Sacks, typically, are not.
But Shelton has been doing much of the tackling – and even more surprisingly, the sacking – himself this year.
“That was my goal coming into the season, was to have more production than last year. I wanted to have more sacks,” Shelton said. “Last year, I only had like one or two, and this year I was looking to get one or two sacks or more. I continue to produce and continue to run to the ball. That’s mainly my goal.”
Kikaha, a fifth-year senior, has noticed a more active Shelton this season.
“Danny always had great effort. Always ran to the ball,” Kikaha said. “But now, he’s more tenacious, and so his pass rush has improved tremendously. He’s not reading around for things or feeling around for it, he’s just going full speed. And it shows up on film, any time the ball’s gone, they throw a pass downfield, you’ll see Danny flying, jumping into the pile, knocking a guy down, chasing somebody down. He’s just a much more tenacious player.”
It will be a different challenge this week against the Golden Bears. For one, Cal has run the ball nearly as much as it has passed it (though it didn’t last week). The threat of a running game, by itself, offers protection for Goff.
“I think Sonny and staff have done an excellent job in the offseason of kind of looking, ‘OK, what do we have personnel-wise, how do we maximize their talent and their ability, and also keep our quarterback upright?’ And the first thing they did was say, ‘we’re going to be more committed to running the football,’” said Huskies defensive line coach Jeff Choate. “And so when you look at it and say they’re ranked 80th in the country in the rushing game, they’re also rushing for 150 yards a game. So that’s still an effective number, and that balance takes some of the heat off of the offensive line and off of Goff in terms of having to spin it every down.”
Goff isn’t necessarily a running threat, Kwiatkowski said, but does use his legs well enough to extend plays if necessary.
“He’s not going to run to get positive yards,” Kwiatkowski said, “but he’s going to keep plays alive and look to throw downfield. A lot of their big plays are off of him doing that.”
Kikaha looks forward to preventing such freelancing.
“I’m confident in our defense,” he said, “and we’ve always got to respect our opponents and respect what they put on film. But he’s going to be throwing it a lot, so there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for us to zero in on him.”
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple