1. Which team is Washington State? Are the Cougars the team that lost at home to Rutgers, 41-38, on Aug. 28? Are they the team that scored just 13 points in a loss to Nevada on the road? Are they the team that put 59 points on Portland State and played Oregon to a standstill in a 38-31 loss, and then, a week later, came back from a 21-0 deficit to defeat Utah 28-27?
After the first two weeks, this game appeared to be imminently winnable for California. Now? It’s a bit of a tossup.
“I watched most of the [Utah] game on television, and it didn’t surprise me, really,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes, who coached under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. “They just played hard. That’s what they do well. They’re a tough, resilient bunch. They play hard. They did a really good job of battling all the time and competing, and that’s kind of what their football team is. It wasn’t really a surprise that they did it. Obviously, they’ve got some firepower, offensively, and can score points and do it fast. That was a nice win on the road against a good Utah team.”
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Why is this a key to the game on Saturday in Pullman? Because, for all the trumpeting of an inward focus, Cal has to know what to expect, and ‘expecting the unexpected,’ is as much a strategy as hope is.
One thing that the last two games have shown is that the Cougars can score quickly, score in bunches and clamp down on defense. There hasn’t been much defense in Cal games over the past two weeks, but if any team knows how to defend an offense like the Bear Raid, it’s a team that practices against such an offense every day.
“I saw them against Oregon the week before, and I thought they played really good defense against Oregon, as well,” Dykes said. “They’re a good defensive football team. I thought they were last year, and I think they’ve continued to get better. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re playing good defense. I think their front’s good. Their front is big, physical and they play hard. They do a lot of different things.”
Yes, you read that right: A team and a coach known for offense now has a viable defense. Yes, they’re ninth in the league in scoring defense, but the Cougars are sixth in the league in total defense (408.0 ypg), while the Bears are last (478.0 ypg).
2. The pressure will be on the Cal defensive backs … again. Washington State ranks 25th in the nation in passer efficiency, first in passing yards per game, second in passing first downs and 20th in completion percentage. The last two weeks, the Bears have allowed a total of 975 yards and a 65.96 completion percentage (93-for-141).
Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman’s defensive game plans have centered around stopping the run, and against two mobile quarterbacks and a top running back in Arizona’s Nick Wilson, that was a decent idea, but when the defensive line can’t get enough pressure quickly enough to stop quick passes – like the screens that Colorado used to such great effect – the defensive backs were left out to dry.
“I think part of it, Arizona has a lot of good receivers, and we’ve had a hard time matching up against guys here the last couple weeks, and we’ve played two really good receivers (Cayleb Jones and Nelson Spruce),” Dykes said. “We’ve got to obviously get better. There are some things we have to improve and get a whole lot better, fast. At times, yesterday, we were in pretty good position, and just didn’t make the plays on the ball.”
The Bears are ninth in the Pac-12 in sacks, and without a good pass rush against Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, a thin defensive backfield could be facing the exact same situation they faced against the Wildcats and Buffaloes, magnified greatly because of the lack of a run game in the Air Raid offense.
“The thing about defense is that it’s 11 guys playing together. If you have a great pass rush, then you don’t have to cover for longer,” Dykes said. “It makes it easier for your defensive backs. If you can play tight coverage all the time, and nobody gets open, and you get coverage sacks. All the stuff kind of plays together, so we’ve just got to play better together as a unit, and that’s just part of defensive football.”
As for the lack of pressure on both Sefo Liufau and Anu Solomon?
“You would like to see more,” Dykes said. “We blitzed a lot. We felt like, in order to get pressure, that was what we were going to have to do. We got some pressure when we didn’t blitz. We did not want to give him a lot of time to set his feet and throw the ball, so like anything else, just like with them, when they blitzed us, they’re going to play man coverage on the back end, and when you do that, you have a chance to turn a six-yard completion into a 92-yard touchdown. Those kinds of things happen. Football’s a game of giving up something to get something, and when you blitz, you can get there. If you don’t, it makes it tough on your guys to cover. It all works together.”
A subhead under this topic has to be the absence of safety Stefan McClure, who would have been able to support the corners on the deep passes and balls down the middle.
“He’s played a lot. He’s one of our team captains. He has a lot of experience and has played a lot of football for us, and right now, we don’t have a tremendous amount of experience on the back end,” Dykes said. “He certainly gives us that, and he’s a calming influence. He allows us to move some other people around and get our best guys on the field. Not having him is something that […] we need him. We want him. We need him. It’s not good for us, when he’s not out there playing, but at the same time, that’s college football, and the next man’s got to step up and pick up the slack. We have confidence that the guys that we have will be able to do that. We’ve got to keep working hard and keep getting them better.”
If Darius White is finally able to get snaps on defense to bolster a cornerback corps that’s largely relied on Cedric Dozier, redshirt freshman Darius Allensworth and sophomore Cameron Walker, the Bears will be in better shape.
“The thing with him is he just hasn’t had a chance to practice a lot,” Dykes said. “We’re going to continue to bring him along. He’s got an injury that’s such that we’ve got to try to protect him as much as we can, at certain times, but at the same time, we’re at the time where we need to get him in the game more and let him play. I would expect you see him more and more. I don’t think he’s going to play 100 plays Saturday, but I think you’re going to see him more than you’ve seen him up to this point.”
As for the health of McClure – who went down in pregame warmups against Arizona with a calf injury?
“I don’t know. I think he’s going to practice Tuesday, and that’s going to determine how he does in practice this week and how much he’s going to be able to play,” Dykes said. “We’re not going to put him out there unless he’s 100-percent healthy and can help us. The second thing is, you always risk, especially with a muscle injury, you always risk injuring it more, so we’re just trying to balance between getting him enough work, to where he can play, but at the same time, not injuring him for the rest of the year.”
3. Keep on running. Washington State is 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (177.2 ypg), while the Bears are seventh in rushing offense (172.2 ypg). The Cougars have seen that run defense bolstered over the past two weeks by the emergence of linebacker Jeremiah Allison, who’s piled up 23 tackles in his first two collegiate starts.
“They’ll line up and play some odd and some even and do a lot of things. It seems to me the strength of their defense is their front, for sure,” said Dykes.
Partly as a function of having played the Wolf Pack and the Ducks, Washington State has seen an average of 77 offensive plays per game run against them, 101st in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They’ve also faced 44 rushing attempts per game (107th), 9.0 rushing first downs per game (77th) and 2.33 rushing touchdowns per game (103rd). Their pass rush, though, has been strong, with 12 sacks in four games.
What does that mean for the Bears? A steady diet of Daniel Lasco, who finds himself sixth in the Pac-12 in rushing (86.6 ypg) after two 100+ yard rushing games in the past two weeks.
“I think what happens sometimes, is, with players, it’s important for them to figure out who they are, and that’s a big part of becoming a good football player, is understanding, ‘This is who I am. This is what I’m capable of doing. These are my strengths,’” Dykes said of Lasco’s development. “As a result, you adjust when you play the game. With Daniel, he got bigger in the offseason, he got stronger, he learned to run low. He was more of an upright runner last year. He’s done a really good job of putting his pads down. I think, the biggest thing, he realized, ‘This is what I am -- not somebody who’s going to miss a lot of guys miss in the open field, although that’s part of my game. I’m not a scat back. I’m a more physical, downhill guy.’ Pierre Ingram and Tony have done a good job bringing him along and getting him to understand that, and he’s done a great job of taking that role, accepting it and developing into a really good football player.”
A preseason Doak Walker Award Watch List member, Lasco’s development hasn’t come as a surprise to the staff, but the speed of that development is a different story.
“That’s what we needed. We needed a physical runner that could finish runs and could give us tough yards, and he’s done a tough job of doing that, this year, so far,: Dykes said. “We kind of hoped we’d get this. I think, in some ways, it’s probably maybe happened maybe a little bit faster than we thought. Just seeing him physically, and seeing him at times last year, we thought he was capable of becoming this type of running back. It’s always fun to see guys start to play at their potential. He’s done a nice job for us.”
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