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Pre-Snap Read: WSU vs the California Golden Bears

How bad is Cal’s defense, exactly?

NCAA Football: Washington at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

No. 23 Washington State (7-2) welcomes the California Golden Bears (4-5) to Pullman this weekend. Cal has two home games against Stanford and UCLA after their visit to Martin Stadium, and need to find two more wins somewhere to reach bowl eligibility. And of course the game that features two teams that throw over 50 times a game will get placed in the 7:30 p.m. ESPN time slot — this’ll last a minimum four hours.

If you aren’t lucky enough to be in Pullman for the game, make sure you put that TV on mute so Rod Gilmore doesn’t infect you with his bad football knowledge.

Cal is 20 years ahead of WSU in all-time record (46-26-5), propped up by a bad decade in the 1940s and a Cal winning streak that’s more recent. WSU beat the Bears nine times between 1990 and 2002. Then a funny thing happened, WSU lost Mike Price to Alabama (but ultimately UTEP) and Cal hired Jeff Tedford away from Oregon (OC). After losing that first match-up in 2002, Tedford and Cal owned WSU for eight straight games.

This included the worst ever game — check that -- worst beat-down I’d ever witnessed in person, to that point. On September 6th, 2008, Cal flipped on the neon “Oh Shit” sign in the window of the season.

A 39-13 opening game loss at Oklahoma State wasn’t really that bad; some guy named Dez Bryant returned a punt, and new head coach Paul Wulff was just getting his feet wet. It’d be different against Cal. At home.

Jahvid Best housed the first snap of the game, 80 yards.

Ok, settle in. This’ll be fine. Chris Ivory rush for three yards. Nice. Safe. Gary Rodgers interception returned to the WSU 12. Cal scored again two plays later. They went up 28-3 in the second quarter then scored on a blocked field goal. Yes, Wazzu tried kicking a field goal down 28-3.

Cal went on to win 66-3 in a season that would feature four consecutive opponents scoring at least 58 points.

In 2009, Cal quarterback Kevin Riley threw only three passes in the first quarter. They were all touchdowns. That game also ended in a blowout, in case you were wondering.

Any and every sort of personality that covers college football turns into a giddy mess when talking about Cal vs. Washington State right now because of what happened two years ago. 60 combined first downs; neither team topping 25 rush attempts or 80 rushing yards; both teams topping 50 passing attempts; none of the turnovers; all of the points; college kicker ending.

Cougar quarterback Connor Halliday went 49-of-70 (70 percent) for 734 yards and six touchdowns, and lost because WSU gave up back-to-back kick return touchdowns to Trevor Davis. And because the WSU kicker missed a 19 yard field goal as time expired.

I say all of that only to say this;

WSU can score a lot of points this season and Cal can’t do a damn thing to stop it.

Brian Anderson - CougCenter

Sonny Dykes runs the “Bear Raid” at Baylor Cal, which has transitioned into more of an Art Briles-type offense than a Mike Leach one throughout his tenure there. The predominant philosophy is to spread teams sideline to sideline and the default check is to a wide receiver screen.

Cal’s receivers are going to predominantly show 2x2 (what we call “Ace”) and stretch the inside guys out between the hashes and the numbers. This is where the majority of this game will hinge for WSU defensively. This game is massive for WSU corners Darrien Molton, Marcellus Pippins (who Michael Preston named his Most Important Person this week), Charleston White, and Treshon Broughton.

They will be hit with a barrage of screens; Cal loves the wide receiver screen so much -- and wants you to think about the wide receiver screen so much — they’ll deke it with a pump fake after handing the ball off on run plays. They are an extremely sideline-limited offense in the passing game this year, which makes them very boom or bust, depending on whether a corner can tackle in space.

Cal is second in the conference (behind WSU) and seventh nationally in the number of pass plays over ten yards. Like Wazzu, they don’t often break for huge plays but they do pick up enough yardage to remain ahead of the sticks, clocking a Success Rate that ranks 34th.

Oregon State was able to lock down the Bear Raid going to man-under with two free safeties to help with the deep balls, which will come, and a little Cloud (Cover 2) mixed in. The mixed coverage WSU plays on the outside matches up really well with what Cal tries to do. They’ll play a lot of Cover 2 (with some switches/adjustments with the safety and nickel to pattern match), allowing the corners to be hyper aggressive toward the screens.

Defensively, Cal is terrible. Statistically they are worse than Arizona. There isn’t really a lot else to say that a list wouldn’t cover. Here’s all the per game metrics where Cal is ranked 117th or worse (bottom 10 in all of college football) and the WSU offensive rank where applicable;

  • % Opp. Plays (TO or SACK or TFL)
  • % Opponent Plays (TD or FD) - WSU 12th
  • FD Allowed by Penalty - WSU 3rd
  • Offensive Plays Allowed - WSU 11th
  • Opponent 3rd Down Conv % - WSU 12th
  • Opponent 4th Down Conv % - WSU 30th
  • Pass Efficiency Defense - WSU 16th
  • Passing TDs Allowed - WSU 5th
  • Rushing Attempts Allowed - WSU 127th
  • Rushing FD Allowed - WSU 117th
  • Rushing TDs Allowed - WSU 33rd
  • Rushing Yards Allowed - WSU 118th
  • Scoring Defense - WSU 10th
  • Tackles for Loss by Defense
  • Total FD Allowed - WSU 3rd
  • Total TDs Allowed - WSU 6th
  • Total Yards Allowed - WSU 17th
  • Yards / Rush Attempt Allowed - (sacks are in here) WSU 89th

What has me concerned about the California Golden Bears

Pew Pew: If Cal manages to push the pace in scoring it really becomes anyone’s game at that point. I’d still favor the Wazzu defense to make that one single play that would be needed in a game like that over Cal, but a #Pac12AfterDark shootout isn’t something any fan of either team should be excited to walk into — especially the team that’s favored.

Cal just isn’t very good on defense and their best shot at winning games is to initiate a shootout.

Vincent from California Golden Blogs was kind enough to answer a few of our questions.

What are you most confident in about the California Golden Bears?

“That no matter what happens, it will be entertaining. The Bears have shown a propensity to stay in games (well, except against Washington, but even in the first half it was close!), which has led to a bunch of nail-biting, thrilling, #Pac12AfterDark specials (see: v. Utah and v. Oregon, but also @Arizona State and @SDSU). One concern at the end of the Tedford years was that Cal would tend to give up when down by more than two touchdowns, which led to a lot of blowouts. I think our team feels that no matter how far down we are, we can score quickly enough to even it up. Sure, we'll give up a billion points, but we can also score a trillion, so we're never really out of anything.

“In terms of a specific position, I think our WRs have shined. We lost our top 6 guys to the NFL/graduation last year, but Chad Hansen and the crew have really stepped up to offer a bunch of different looks and weapons. Hansen's route running and quickness makes him a great go-to guy; Demetris Robertson always seems to find himself free downfield a few times a game, Melquise Stovall is great after the catch, and the rest of the crew also offer great options for Davis Webb to spread the ball around the field. It says a lot that we lost basically our entire passing game from last year, but haven't seen too much of a drop off in production.”

What has me confident in the Cougs

Hot Falk: Hope the skins carry over from last week’s murder-death-kill of Arizona. Falk was efficient like we thought he’d be, but to a degree I didn’t really think was possible in Division 1 football. More touchdowns than incompletions is insanity. Cal’s defense is more of the same sort of bad, so he should have time and guys should get open. Keeping that jersey clean another week would be nice.

Tackling, dummy: Cal would give Arizona a run for their money in the missed tackles department. This could be a banner day for YAC.

Ground Raid: It doesn’t show up in cumulative statistical rankings, but Wazzu has moved from “quietly getting pretty good” at running the ball to “lethal.” Jamal Morrow and BOOBIE Williams both average over six yards an attempt, and have 69 and 70 carries on the season, respectively. Williams gets at least five yards on over half his attempts. They rank 6th nationally in Power Success Rate (getting the short yardage to move the sticks when they need to), 15th in Rushing Success Rate and second in Stuff Rate. Mastro has these dudes cooking and while Cal can’t defend anything, they are slightly worse at defending the run than the pass.

So, Vincent...

What about Wazzu should concern Cal?

“Normally, I would be concerned about a mid-November game in Pullman because California and blizzards don't go well together, but it looks like weather won't be horrific this weekend! More seriously, I know y'all have been running the ball better this year, but it's still the Air Raid that scares me. Cal's secondary is beyond thin — we're basically playing third-string (and fourth-string?) safeties at this point, and Darius Allensworth, one of our top two corners, has been out indefinitely. I would not be incredibly surprised to see another Washington State quarterback break the FBS passing yard record against us again.”

How I see this game playing out

Boat race. Because of Cal’s offense, they’re never really out of a game, but this should be comfortable by midway through the third quarter. I’d expect fairly huge days for at least two of WSU’s receivers — Gabe Marks and someone else; let’s guess River Cracraft, who didn’t get real deep into the mix until later in last week’s game.

A Wazzu running back will house one from over 50 yards out, too. “BOOOOBIE” chants from the crowd every time he touches the ball are a thing that needs to happen. Come on Internet, make this a reality.

Vegas has WSU winning 49 - 34 (-14.5, O/U 83) and the advanced stats think way less of WSU’s scoring ability, predicting a Coug win probability of 63 percent and score of 38.6 - 33.1.

I have no idea how that gets worked out like that in Bill C’s laptop but it does give me a little pause that the predictions differ so greatly. Pause over.

Final Score: WSU 68 - 37 Cal

And Vincent...

“I expect Washington State to keep everything in front of them for the most part. Davis Webb will have to string together a ton of short-to-mid-range completions (which he is definitely capable of doing!) to sustain drives. For the most part, the offense will do well, but will probably go cold for 3 consecutive possessions at some point. Demetris Robertson will get open for at least one long-range touchdown. We don't have a power-back anymore, but our running backs will probably punch it in the endzone at least once, and Webb will probably rush for one TD as well on a well-designed misdirection play.

“On the other hand, Cal will be unable to stop the Cougars. We might get 1-2 sacks on the day, if we're lucky, but Luke Falk will have all day to throw. Cal will probably stop most runs up the middle, but if Washington State runs off tackle, they'll get chunks of yards in space.

“I predict a shootout! As a homer, Cal wins 120-119.”

Huge thanks to Vincent and the fine folks at California Golden Blogs, whose site is fantastic and entertaining. It’s probably my favorite PAC-12 site outside of ours, if I can suck up a little.

See you in Martin.