The Golden Bears, who have been anything but this season, come to Pullman Saturday to battle an undefeated Cougar team that ranks in the top five in nearly every statistical category in the Pac-10, including boasting the top offense and TOP rushing defense. The 0-2 Bears are off to a horrible start after surrendering a combined 88 points in home losses to Illinois and BYU.
The Berkeley boys rank dead last in the conference in total defense and ninth in scoring offense.
Despite all the stats indicating a WSU blowout, Coach Mike Price is leery about putting a ‘W' in the win column just yet.
"I'm a little worried about some of the comments coming from their players about the frustration and internal problems they're having," Price said. "That turmoil that they're having can be used to come out and put it to their opponent, or it could work against them. That intensity could be dangerous if they get some confidence early. Their offense is improved from last year and their defense is always solid, they have a lot of defensive people returning but we don't want to let them hang around and let it be a close game."
The intensity factor was a subject of note at Cal Coach Tom Holmoe's weekly press conference.
"Our guys are thirsty to get back on the field and try to get things right and turn the season around." Holmoe said on the school's web site. "Our practice sessions have been very good. We obviously took off last Tuesday and then went Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We gave the players Saturday off to give them an opportunity to go home and see their families. Then we came in on Sunday and practiced a little more than usual. So we're back into the normal practice schedule and routine that we would have and getting ready to play WSU."
To combat that bearish intensity the Cougs must come out and move the ball from the get-go, Price said.
"We need to make sure we're ready to start the game with intensity and focus like we've had the first two games. Physically we need to beat them off the ball in the first two quarters," Price said.
The Cougars enter the game with the No. 8 ranked offense in the nation, which is bad news for the Bears who rank 97 in the nation in total defense.
Jason Gesser and the receiving corps have combined to form the top passing attack in the Pac 10.
Senior Slotback Nakola McElrath, the defending Pac-10 offensive player of the week, is tops in the nation averaging 175.5 receiving yards per game and ninth in receptions per game. McElrath set a WSU record by hauling in 18 receptions in the Cougs first two games, he is currently on pace to snag 90 receptions this year which would shatter the existing record of 67 set by current Coug offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller in 1976.
Holmoe is well aware of the potential problems the WSU offense poses for his defense.
"Washington State is a good team," he said. "They have a very good quarterback in Gesser, who is similar to Brandon Doman from BYU in that he's extremely mobile and very creative. He gets out of the pocket and that's where he hurts you."
While the statisticians may say Cal has the worst defense in the conference (and they do) Price sees things a little differently.
"They're defense is good, they just gave up a couple big plays," Price said. "They have a real good run defense and they're whole defense is set up to stop the run. We have to run, but we might be throwing a little more, but we're just going to have to take what they give us."
The Cal offense should pose an interesting challenge for the Cougar defense this week. With new offensive coordinator Al Borges coming over from UCLA, the Bears attack features multiple formations and shifts, Price said.
"Every play action pass has a screen out of it it seems, and one formation is never the same," he said. "It's hard to prepare for, but we've had a couple extra days to prepare which was good for the coaches, he (Borges) knows us and we know him."
The game could very well come down to a battle of kicking games, as it did last year when the Cougs blocked three Cal punts including one by Eric Colman that set up the eventual go ahead touchdown.
"The kicking game was a huge part of last year's game." Price said. "I wouldn't be surprised one bit if they tried a fake again this year. They have a new special teams coordinator, so he'll do some things differently and I think that he probably has a fake for just about every situation."
As Cougs enter the meat and potato part of their schedule with conference play this week Coach Price is confident about his team's chances.
"I think we are ready for the Pac 10. We obviously had momentum going into the Colorado game and we were excited at the opportunity, but it just didn't feel right to play the game with what happened last week, it's probably just as good it went the way it did," Price said. "I think it was good we took a couple days off and now our players seem to be more up, more focused and more concentrated on the Cal game. We've played pretty well in the past two games and I'd like for us to build on that, we don't want to take a step backward."