It's always annoying when a game is characterized as a "must win" before it literally is. In that sense, today's game against the California Golden Bears -- 1 p.m. kickoff, Fox Sports 1 -- isn't a must win for the WSU Cougars to make it to a bowl game. They need three wins, and there are seven games left, including today.
But if we're talking probabilities, today's game would seem to be pretty pivotal. It's widely assumed that Cal is the weakest team left on the schedule, and the weakest team left is a team you probably need to beat -- regardless of the location -- when your own ability is somewhat questionable.
Like most Pac-10/12 teams over the last decade, the Golden Bears have had the Cougars' number. However, the way they've done it has been pretty neat! It seems like every running back who has stepped foot in Berkeley has run for approximately eleventy billion yards against WSU.
Heck, Cal even figured out a way to beat WSU with freaking Brock Mansion at quarterback.
Jared Goff, though only a true freshman, is much better than Mansion, and the passing attack under Sonny Dykes and the Bear Raid is the most prolific the Cougars have faced this year. In a conference known for its wide-open offense, it's weird that it took until the sixth game to see this sort of team, but here we are. And how the Cougs will respond is anyone's guess.
We know the WSU defensive front is excellent against the run, but we don't know much about its ability to generate a pass rush -- the defensive linemen and linebacker were effectively stonewalled by Stanford. Of course, that's Stanford. Will they be able to rush Goff into some poor decisions today?
And how about the secondary? The back four was torched by the Cardinal, but was that because they were hyper run conscious? Can they cover competently when that's their primary responsibility?
So many questions. And they don't stop with the defense!
Quarterback Connor Halliday was knocked out by Stanford with an apparent hip injury. He practiced this week, but exactly what that means, nobody is quite sure. When asked in a live chat how well Halliday was moving at practice, new Spokesman-Review beat writer Jacob Thorpe said, "How to put this in a way that won't get me kicked out of practice? … He's doing the same drills as the other QBs."
Not exactly the sort of thing to inspire confidence. It creates a little bit of a complicating factor because we can assume Halliday was taking the bulk of the reps with the ones, and while we know Halliday is tough as nails, if he gets knocked out of the game, Austin Apodaca again steps in without the benefit of lots of first team reps in the previous week.
Beyond that, Halliday can be very good when his mechanics are good, and those are best when he comfortable in the pocket. Cal doesn't have much a of a pass rush, but will Halliday be more flinchy than usual with his left hip still presumably hurting? And to that end, will he still be getting over his front leg when he throws, something that seems to be the key to his accuracy and zip?
So. Many. Questions. And it sure would be nice to not have them at the most important position in a game that really could end up being the difference between five and six wins.
How do you think it will play out? Get the conversation started below.
Saturday, Oct 5, 2013, 1:00 PM PDT
TV: Fox Sports 1
California Memorial Stadium