GAME DAY CENTRAL: Cal vs. Washington State

BERKELEY -- The last time Cal had a running back go for 100 yards in three straight games was way back in 2011. Can Daniel Lasco turn the trick this week against Washington State? Find out inside, plus more notes, quotes and analysis as the Bears get ready for the Air Raid.



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THE MATCH-UP
California (3-1, 1-1 in Pac-12) vs. Washington State (2-3, 1-1)
Last Time Out: Washington State 44, Cal 22 in Berkeley, Calif. (Oct. 5, 2013)
Last Time in Pullman: Cal 31, Washington State 17 (Oct. 13, 2012)
WASHINGTON STATE ROSTER
CAL ROSTER
The Betting Line: Washington State -3; O/U 73.5
When: Oct. 4, 7:30 PM Pacific
Where: Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.
Watch: Pac-12 Networks; Kevin Calabro (play-by-play), Yogi Roth (analyst), Lewis Johnson (sideline)
Listen: KGO 810 AM, Cal IMG Sports Network; Joe Starkey (play-by-play), Mike Pawlawski (analyst), Todd McKim (sideline reporter)
Student Radio: KALX 90.7 FM; Justin Allen (play-by-play), Eamonn Shannon (analyst) California Injury Report: Stefan McClure (calf): questionable; Darius White (shoulder) probable; Jeffrey Coprich (foot) out; Joel Willis (shin) probable; Darius Powe (shoulder) out.
Cal Game Notes
WSU Game Notes
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FUN FACT: Cal is tied for first in the Pac-12 North, and an Arizona Hail Mary away from being undefeated. Says offensive guard Chris Borrayo: “We’re not really shocked that we’re almost 4-0. We’re still hungry. We want to get there.”

FUN STAT: Jeremiah Allison, Wazzu linebacker, has 23 tackles in his first two collegiate starts the past two weeks.

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FIVE BOLD PREDICTIONS:
1. Linebacker Michael Barton will notch his first pick of the season. He switched jerseys with Hardy Nickerson during practice this week and came up with one, so I’m thinking the mojo carries forward.
2. Chris Harper leads the team in catches.
3. Luke Rubenzer sees more than 10 snaps.
4. Cal will be in nickel more than 60% of the time (dusting this one off from the Northwestern game).
5. Daniel Lasco runs for over 100 yards for the third straight game

What to Watch for on Offense:
DANIEL LASCO: The last time that a Bears running back ran for 100 yards in three straight games was Sept. 17-Oct. 6, 2011, when Isi Sofele turned the trick against Presbyterian, Washington and Oregon. Lasco has a shot to do that this week against the Cougars.

“If it weren’t for our offensive line, I probably wouldn’t be sitting on the phone with you,” Lasco said earlier this week. “They do everything. They do all the work, but the people who run the ball get all the glory. Each and every week, we have to have them be the stars of the team, and if they don’t, then we, as an offense, we can’t do anything with the ball. They’ve grown tremendously. Running the ball, the most important thing is them staying healthy, and we’re making great strides in keeping people fresh.

“They’ve grown tremendously from last year’s offensive line, and it’s making our jobs as running backs and as a quarterback a lot easier to be able to trust them and get those yards around the ball.”

Lasco has evolved from a speed-based back to one that takes advantage of his size and power, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff. “He got banged up, had some shoulder issues, but we saw signs of it last year,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “I think part of it is just figuring out who you are. That’s part of becoming a good football player is doing a little bit of a self-assessment, and saying, ‘OK, look, here are my strengths. I’m going to really play on my strengths, and I’m going to develop my weaknesses,’ and with Daniel, he came to the conclusion that, ‘Look, I’m a big, strong guy, and if I can run with my pads low and really finish runs, I can be a load,’ and, to his credit, he worked incredibly hard in the offseason on doing that. It’s not something that happens easily. He’s really learned how to run behind his pads and to finish runs. He’s playing probably as well as anybody, right now. I think, again, a big part of it has been him figuring out, getting bigger and stronger and staying healthy and all those kinds of things, as well.”

While the strength of Washington State’s defense is the front seven – the front four, in particular – the Cougars allow 4.14 yards per rushing attempt and teams rush, on average, 42.8 times per game against them. They’ve also forced just 0.8 turnovers per game, 113th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The Cougars are 10th in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 177.2 yards per game and eight rushing touchdowns – second most in the conference.

While the Cal rushing offense has not been one of the best in the league, it’s markedly better than last year, when it was just about non-existent. Much of that has been due to Lasco, who’s averaging 6.3 yards per carry – tied for the second-most among conference rushing leaders with Arizona’s Nick Wilson.

“We got told after the Northwestern game that our run game wasn’t nearly as good as we’d hoped it was,” Borrayo said. “We picked it up, but we’ve thought of different ways of getting after it.”

Lasco’s emergence has certainly made things easier on Franklin, who’s called more runs than passes this season.

“It’s huge, because he’s become special,” Franklin said. “Bottom line is, you flip the film on, and he goes bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. He catches the ball, there are seven right there, and he scores. When guys do that, it changes everything. He’s worked really hard to become that kind of guy. Add the fact that Khalfani [Muhammad] can do that occasionally, as well, and it’s changed our offense. When you can run the ball, it changes everything.”

THE BATTLE UP FRONT. Washington State can and will blitz a lot. That’s how they sacked Marcus Mariota seven times, thanks to pressure from the front four – three defensive linemen and a BUCK linebacker.

“They are good,” said Franklin. “They’re the best ones that we’ve seen. They’re active. They’re quick, physical, they get after you. They got after [Mariota], they penetrated and they made plays in the backfield. He’s a special player, but they certainly got after him.”

The front three -- Xavier Cooper, Destiny Vaeao and Kalafitoni Pole are very young – two freshmen and a sophomore – but they’re very effective.

“In their three-man stuff, they’re always bringing somebody,” Franklin said. “It’s different. For us, the way we do stuff, it’s just not that big a deal.”

Borrayo is certainly excited for the challenge.

“The drive where they nearly had three sacks in a row was very eye-opening,” Borrayo said of the Washington State defense against Oregon. “It wasn’t the fact that they beat up on their O-line; the Oregon offensive line wasn’t keeping up with them, all those blitzes kept beating them up, but they weren’t communicating up front, and they weren’t prepared for that kind of defense. Given the way we work here, up front, we’ll be ready for them.”

Offensive line coach Zach Yenser calls the Cougars front “the most physical, most athletic that we’ve played this year.”

“They’re big guys, they’re fast, quick-twitch, well-coached, and they freaking play hard,” Yenser continued. “They’re tough. They’re three-down with their BUCK backer, so it’s really kind of a 3-4 linebacker type stuff, and they’ll go to some four-down stuff. They’re bringing pressure. They’re 70-75 percent five-man pressure throughout the game.”

Will the blitzing and rush open up running lanes?

“Everybody, regardless of how somebody lines up, they all have fits,” Franklin said. “Everybody has to fit something, so, theoretically, when you have a blitzing scheme, or if you’re a twisting scheme, it’s still, this guy fits A-gap, this guy fits B-gap, so it doesn’t really matter. You have to be sound in what you do. When somebody’s complex in what they do, you’ve got to be simple in what you do.”

Stephen Anderson. Last week, Anderson recorded seven catches for 136 yards – both career-highs. With Darius Powe again listed as out for Washington State, Anderson will provide some pressure in the middle of the defense and some mis-matches on safeties with his size, and linebackers with his speed.

“These were my first two games back from a knee injury, and we have a whole bunch of talented receivers, who are all on the field because they can make plays,” Anderson said. “It was just my opportunity to make plays and capitalize on it. Coaches tell us all the time: There can be a different star every week, and, fortunately for me, the last two weeks, I got my opportunity and made the best of it.”

Anderson was listed as the starting H-receiver out of camp, but sustained a nagging knee injury in the latter days leading into game prep for Northwestern.

“I’m doing the little things that the coaches have taught us to do in practice, like looking the ball in, running my routes at the correct depth, just all the little things that have come to make big differences, and on the scramble drill, running to the quarterback’s eyes, where he can see you, just little things like that,” Anderson said. “I had gone up for a ball, come down wrong and twisted my knee up a little, and then Darius got his opportunity, and Darius is on the field because he’s a playmaker just like all the other receivers. That’s what it was. It’s unfortunate that me and him haven’t been healthy for a full game yet, and I feel like, the day that happens, that’s going to be some real damage and mismatches.”

In fact, it was on a scramble drill that Anderson hauled in his first career touchdown last week.

With 2:56 to go in the fourth quarter, quarterback Jared Goff, on second-and-10 at the Cal 25, rolled right, with a Colorado defensive end in pursuit, and find Anderson on a long slant for a 75-yard touchdown, tying the game at 42.

“It was actually on a play that we’ve been running a lot,” Anderson said. “It was a five-yard little stick route, and I was the only receiver to that side of the field, and I saw Jared rolling out, right. One of the things they tell us is, if you’re deep, then come back to the ball, and if you’re close, run deep, so the safeties came up in pursuit of Jared, and I was able to slip out the back side with the linebacker on me.”

Given the likely high-scoring nature of the game against the Cougars, his sure hands could once again be called upon quite a few times.

“This is just going to be a Pac-12 shootout,” Anderson said .”Their offense is very similar to our offense. They go four wide receivers a lot. They pass as much as we do, so it’s going to be a long game. It’s going to be 60 minutes of football.”

Dykes joked earlier this week that he’s had games go well past midnight, when he was working with Washington State head coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech, laughing that, one kickoff at 9 PM resulted in a first quarter ending after midnight.

What to Watch for on Defense
THE SCREEN GAME. Colorado gashed the Bears badly last week with the screen game, just as they’ve done the past two times the teams have met. Washington State will have the same idea, said defensive backs coach Greg Burns.

“They have a totally different passing game, but similar schematic thoughts,” said Burns. “They are going to try to force you to run sideline to sideline, but at the same time, their route concepts are going to be different from Colorado.”

Burns characterized the Cougars as “very efficient,” though their yards-per-completion (11.84) is right in the middle of the FBS (66th). Their yards per pass attempt, though (7.99) is in the top 50. Getting the ball out quick and avoiding what’s been a sub-par Cal pass rush is what Colorado did, and it may very well be what Washington State does.

“It’s understanding what they’re trying to do, getting ourselves in right body position on specific route concepts and then, when you’re there, make a play,” Burns said.

Fatigue could also wind up being a factor, particularly if the Bears defense has to play over 100 snaps for the third time in three weeks.

“You play football because you like to play. Our defensive guys ought to be happy; they’ve played a lot,” Dykes joked.

Having Willis and White in play somewhat mitigates not having McClure for the third straight week, but his experience and savvy will be missed in the back end.

“Any time someone is down and someone has to come in and replace him, it’s a little bit difficult, but at the same time, it’s exciting because someone has an opportunity, and once they get that opportunity to come in and flourish, you never know what you might or might not have,” Burns said.

Griffin Piatt has certainly taken that opportunity and run with it, scoring three picks over the first three games, though he didn’t come down with a fourth last week.

“No one knew Piatt could be what he is,” Burns said. “He did [break his streak]. I told him he has to double up, so we’ll see.”

NICKEL BACK. Darius Allensworth got picked on against Arizona at corner, but this week, expect him to be back in the nickel, as the Bears will once again face a passing attack that requires them to have five defensive backs, as they did against the deep routes of Northwestern. That game was Cal’s best defensive effort, though they did slump towards the third quarter, allowing the Wildcats to get back into the game before a Jalen Jefferson sack and interception sealed the win.

Allensworth is better in nickel – or at least has been – than he’s been at corner, regularly, and it allows Burns to get his three best corner athletes on the field at once, along with Piatt and veteran Michael Lowe, who’s quietly been having a very good season, with 22 tackles (fifth on the team) and 2.5 tackles for loss – tied for second.


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