Golden Bears hope to hold the line against Air Force

By Dominic Clark,

California’s defense will be tested severely by the Air Force offense when the two teams collide in the 13th Annual Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.

While the Bears have one of the top passing teams in the nation, the Falcons rushing game is No. 2 in the country at 321.8 yards per game on the ground, a challenge for any defense, but maybe an even bigger one for Cal. The Golden Bears have given up an average of 30.2 points per game, 455.3 total yards per game including 203.5 yards rushing each game.

With a 7-5 overall record in 2015 (4-5 Pac 12), Coach Sonny Dykes’ Cal Golden Bears move up and down the gridiron in huge chucks and quickly. Because of these things, the Cal defense has spent of time this season on the field.

Leading the Bear defense are three Pac 12 honorable-mention selections in junior linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr ., 6-2 senior defensive end Kyle Kragen and 5-11 senior defensive back Stefan McClure.

Nickerson Jr, who was selected the team’s 2015 defensive MVP, led this year’s defense with 101 total tackles.  He had a career-high 16 tackles in Cal’s regular-season finale against Arizona State and has double-digit stops in five of the team’s last seven games.

His 234 career stops puts him 23 stops from entering Cal’s all-time top 10 list that includes his father (Hardy Nickerson Sr.) in second place with 501 tackles during his four seasons at Cal from 1983-1986.

Kragen had 65 total tackles including 7.0 tackles for a loss, 6.0 sacks and five rushed throws.  From his safety position, McClure contributed 52 total tackles including 2.5 tackles for a loss.

While Cal’s return teams don’t possess eye-catching statistics, they are consistent as a group, averaging over four yards per punt return and 20.4 yards per kick return, with Trevor Davis returning 27 of the 37 kickoffs the Bears brought back, averaging 21.0 yards per return and 6.8 yards per punt return on four attempts.

Also a weapon for the defense, Cal has a strong punter in senior Cole Leininger who punted 35 times during the regular season with a 41.6 yards per kick average and the hang time of his punts is so strong that only four of his punts were returned, 19 were fair catches and 12 were downed inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.

“We certainly haven’t seen anything like this in a long time,” said Dykes about the rushing attack of Air Force.  “They do a tremendous job running their offense. They execute at a high level. The biggest compliment you can give a football team is two things really - that they play incredibly hard and they execute at a very high level. Their guys know how to play. They’re very precise in what they do. Really good football teams have an identity. And this team definitely has an identity.”

With the strength of the Air Force running game, Cal will have to buckle up enough to get the ball back to the Golden Bear offense and possibly outscoring the Falcons like they did in 2007.  After trailing 21-0 to the Falcons in the 2007 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Cal rebounded to win 42-36.

Clark is an independent contractor for nearly 20 special events annually.  A Nevada graduate and UNLV sports information director for 10 years, Clark has staffed and overseen media centers for a wide variety of sporting events from auto racing to wrestling.  He will be covering the “bowl scene” in the DFW metroplex for the 12th-staight season.  A former staff writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and sports columnist, Clark major client is the SCORE International Desert Racing Series for which he handles Media Relations as well as publishing the SCORE Race Day souvenir programs.  He has worked nearly 20 years in media operations for both domestic and international pro beach volleyball, including the 2012 London Olympic Games.