California 101: Cougs to fight fire with fire

IF WSU AND CAL can put on a show this Saturday night remotely comparable to what they've done the last two weekends, Pullman will host the best game in the country (Pac-12 Networks, 7:30 p.m.) While the Cougars have played their last two opponents to the wire, Cal's last two games were literally decided on the final play of the game.

The Air Raid (or Bear Raid for Cal) lends itself to huge theatrical swings and epic comebacks. So with both teams running Mike Leach's high powered offense this week, the excitement should only compound itself. The footballs will fly, and no lead should be considered safe until clock hits zeroes.

Cougars (2-3) vs Golden Bears (3-1)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
7:30 pm Pacific Time
WHERE:
Martin Stadium (32,952)

TELEVISION:
Pac-12 Networks

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
WSU by 3 1/2

LAST MEETING:
2013 WSU won 44-22

THE SERIES:
WSU trails 44-26-5.

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougs 45, Bears 34

THE BEARS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
QB Jeff Goff: It is ironic that the Bears ended up running (mostly) the same offense as WSU, because Goff is a virtual clone of Connor Halliday. Goff broke most of Cal's passing records in his freshman year, but has really come into his own as a sophomore. He has increased his efficiency in the redzone and reduced his mistakes. In the first four games of the season he has 17 touchdowns and three interceptions, and ranks 5th nationally in passing efficiency.

RB Daniel Lasco: Sonny Dykes has relied upon Lasco as his primary option at running back. He leads the team with 456 yards of total offense.

WRs Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler: As with WSU, the Bears are absolutely stacked at receiver, so you really cannot focus on any one particular target. Nine different receivers have a touchdown already this season for Cal. But overall, Treggs represents Cals best inside receiver (H), and Lawler has emerged as their best weapon on the outside (Z).

Overview
The Bears run the same offense as the Cougars with some subtle differences, which Robin Pflugrad did a great job of spelling out HERE. Overall, Dykes prefers to utilize his running back in a more traditional role, populating his running game with actual running plays as opposed to the swing passes and screens Leach utilizes. Additionally, Goff emphasizes more vertical routes than Halliday and WSU do. He has a lower completion percentage (62 percent vs 67 percent), but a higher yard per attempt on average than Halliday (10.5 vs 7.8).

Strategy
Pressure, pressure, pressure Goff -- but don't get beat deep. Goff has a tendency to hold on to the ball a second longer than Halliday does, but he has better mobility too. And that has prevented teams from racking up sacks on the Bears like you'd expect. The more surprising thing has been the lack of interceptions, though. Goff is a skilled quarterback, but he is also a gambler. If the Cougars can keep the Bears in front of them, they could be privy to a couple of takeaway opportunities over the top. Cal has been very adept when they’ve had one more chance to move the chains, ranking 12th nationally in third-down conversions.

Key Statistic
172.2 Passing Efficiency: Cal passes like crazy but they pass it very effectively too. They currently rank No. 2 nationally in passing efficiency, (WSU is No. 29).

THE BEARS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
S Griffin Piatt: A converted receiver, Priatt has three interceptions in his first four games at his new safety position. Piatt brings great anticipation and ball skills, to a defense that is desperately short on playmakers.

DE Todd Barr: He leads Cal in TFL (3.5) and is tied for the team lead in sacks (2.0). If Cal is going to effectively pressure WSU and Halliday out of their base, Barr is the one who looks most capable of making it happen.

DT Austin Clark He’s only 5-11, 270-pounds but he can also use that natural pad level advantage to muck up the works if WSU doesn’t square up and keep him in check.

Overview
The offense has been very good this season, but that was never Cal's Achilles heal. Cal gave up a record setting 46 points per game last year, and it is clear that most of their problems have not been solved (43 points per game allowed in FBS games this year).

No disrespect to Colorado, but the Bears haven't exactly run into the conferences top offenses yet either. Even after Saturday's offensive track meet, Colorado is still the Pac-12's 10th ranked scoring offense. If Colorado can rack up 39 first downs and 56 points on the Bears at home, who knows what NCAA records Connor Halliday could be in a position to break.

One note: Cal junior safety Stefan McClure has been out the past two weeks, he could return to the lineup this Saturday and Cal was a good deal better on the back end in passing yards allowed with him in the lineup the first two games (albeit against lesser opponents.)

Strategy
Keep the pressure on and don't let up. Cal's defense is thin and has worn down badly towards the end of games. They will be very familiar with WSU’s offense, but that doesn't mean they have the personnel to match up to it.

Key Statistic
29 first downs per game: On a per play basis, Cal's defense doesn't look that bad, but they seem to have a devastating inability to get off the field, especially over the last six quarters -- Colorado and Arizona had 39 and 36 first downs, respectively.

THE BEARS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
On paper the Bears don't bring anything remarkable to the table on special teams. Kicker James Langford has been fairly inconsistent beyond 40 yards. None of the kick returners have made any game breaking plays this season. But WSU seems to have some at least one major special teams gaffe each week, so the burden of proof is not on California.

FINAL THOUGHTS
- While Cal’s offense has scored fewer points each quarter of the games so far this season (63-48-41-28), the Bear defense gives up progressively more points after every successive quarter (21-27-35-53). No lead is safe for Cal right now.

-When the Bears gave up 19 points in the final 3:30 of the game against Arizona, (and 36 fourth quarter points in total), it was shock. But after Colorado scored 14 over the final 3:23 last week, it officially became a trend.

-This game is quietly becoming a bit of an in-conference rivalry. Both teams are anxious to prove they run the Air Raid better, but both coaching staffs are now regularly butting heads over the same types of recruits. Proving supremacy, particularly on the offensive side, pays dividends on and off the field.

- Cal is ranked 117th in penalties, with 9.5 yellow flags per game.



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