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The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. Bears

FOR THE SECOND-straight week the Cougars will face an opponent with some of the best explosive play numbers in the Pac-12.

Arizona, radio color man Jason Gesser noted before Saturday's WSU-UA game, was No. 2 in the conference in explosive plays (20 yards or more).  Wazzu won 69-7.  Come Saturday, the Cougs get the third-best team in the conference in explosive plays: Cal, with 52 to its credit.

In case you're wondering, Washington State is No. 8 in the Pac-12 in explosive plays with 41.  (More on that in the stats section below).

Cal can produce a juggernaut of an offense on any given Saturday, and they want to turn every game into a shootout. But Cal also finds itself in a position where it needs to win two of its last three (WSU, Stanford, UCLA) to go bowling.

The defensive secondary has been riddled with injuries but don't be fooled: opponents have run the ball with ease against the Bears’ defense. The Bears rank dead last in the FBS against the run. They also rank t-125th out of 128 FBS teams in explosive plays allowed.

THE BEARS’ SEASON:  Wins over Hawaii, then-No. 11 Texas, then-No. 18 Utah and Oregon. Losses to SDSU, ASU, Oregon State, USC and UW. ESPN pegs the Bears at No. 8 in its Pac-12 power rankings, just ahead of ASU and Stanford; WSU is No. 2.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Cal RB Khalfani Muhammad is an offensive stat machine but QB Davis Webb is the one to watch. His 3,176 passing yards rank No. 3 nationally, just behind Luke Falk (3,237, pictured above in 2015 vs. Cal).  Webb, a 6-5, 230-pound senior graduate transfer from Texas Tech, has thrown 30 TDs this season, tops in the Pac-12. Get heat and some hits on him, though, and he becomes a different guy (see last week vs. UW with three INTs in second half).  Allow him time to operate, however, and it could be a long day for WSU and a shootout on the scoreboard.

• KICKOFF: Saturday, 7:30 pm Pacific
• TV: ESPN
• THE LINE: Cougs by 14 1/2 (WSU opened as 16-point favorite)
• THE RECORDS: Cougs 7-2/6-0; Bears 4-5/2-4
• THE SERIES: Cal leads 46-26-5
• THE RANKINGS: Cougs No. 23 in AP, Coaches polls

THE COACHES: Cal's Sonny Dykes is in his fourth year in Berkeley after a successful run at Louisiana Tech.  He followed up his debut one-win season in Berkley with five- and seven-win seasons but will need to win out to match last year's win total.  Mike Leach is in his fifth year at WSU and has the Cougars in line for a Pac-12 title game berth if they win the Apple Cup. The Cougs will play in their third bowl invitation under his direction.

THE COACHING CONNECTION: Dykes is a Leach protégé, joining Leach's 2000 Texas Tech staff and eventually working his way up to co-offensive coordinator in 2005.  Dykes was with Leach at Tech for seven seasons. Cal runs a version of the Air Raid, which Dykes calls the Bear Raid, that emphasizes the run more (163 ypg in 2016). He is the son of longtime Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes.

LAST SEASON: Falk led the Cougs on four textbook scoring drives but was sacked seven times in a 34-28 loss to  No. 24 Cal. The Cougs led 21-7 in its '15 Pac-12 opener before Cal mounted a third quarter comeback powered by  special teams. Cal has had WSU's number since 2005, winning three of four since Leach took the Wazzu helm and 10 of the last 11 meetings.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING: Washington State may not be among the conference or national leaders when it comes to explosion plays but the Cougs are second in the Pac-12, and No. 10 nationally, in scoring offense at 43.0 ppg.  Cal is close behind, at No. 3 in the conference and No. 17 nationally (39.7).

In total offense, Cal leads the Pac-12 and ranks No. 8 nationally (517.1 ypg). WSU ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 and No. 17 nationally (502.3).

A key difference why WSU is 7-2 and Cal is 4-5 -- the crimson stop corps.  Washington State is No. 39 nationally in total defense, allowing 373 ypg.  Cal is 125th (528 ypg).

Cal's secondary last week vs. UW was, both literally and figuratively, hurting.  The Golden Bears enter this week No. 103 in the land in team passing efficiency defense after giving up a bevy of deep passes to the Huskies.

FAMILIAR FACES:  Cal safeties coach Greg Burns was a three-year starter at Washington State, earning honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in 1992. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology (1995) and his master’s in counseling psychology (1997) from Washington State. OL coach Brandon Jones played for Leach at Tech before becoming a GA under Leach for two seasons in Lubbock (2007-08).

Six products from the Evergreen State are on the Cal roster: DE Evan Weaver out of Spokane's Gonzaga Prep;
LB Devante Downs/Mountlake Terrace; QB Ross Bowers/Bothell; WR Chas Peterson/Issaquah; WR Matt Laris/Renton; DE Cameron Saffle/Sammamish.

CAL QUOTABLE: The defense is offensive. The unit is depleted by injury, marginally talented, devoid of confidence and lacking in fundamentals. (Otherwise, everything’s grand!)
- Jon Wilner, Mercury News

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