WSU and California are set to engage in what will probably end up as another #Pac12AfterDark masterpiece — because, these games just do when the Cougs and Golden Bears hook up — and we figured it would be a neat idea to get a closer look by asking our friends at California Golden Blogs some questions about their team.
Here we go! (Our answers to their questions follow.)
CougCenter: It sure looked like Sonny Dykes was doing everything in his power to abandon Cal last offseason. How are you feeling about your coach right about now?
boomtho: I think a lot of that was pretty overblown. Sonny wanted to stay at Cal (my read) - he, or maybe even more accurately his agent, was doing what they needed to do to create leverage to push Cal to actually commit to an extension.
Now, how we’re feeling this year: I think the fans are starting to sour on Dykes, or put it a bit more nicely, are starting to come to a more common agreement (though definitely not unanimous) that Dykes’ ceiling is not as high as we’d like Cal’s to be.
Most of this discontent stems from the defense: likely to be a bottom 10-15ish defense for the 3rd time in 4 years, with little hope that there’s talent in in the program or coming in through recruiting that can fix it. DC Art Kaufman appears to be competent at the X’s and O’s team, but he’s a known non-factor in recruiting, and we’re finally seeing the impact that can have on the depth level in the program.
In addition, Sonny remains frustrating in a lot of areas of game management and has shown no improvement trajectory there either. Stuff like timeout usage, inconsistent aggressiveness on 4th down, a play balance that has probably skewed pass too heavily (though that’s on OC Jake Spavital as well), and generally undisciplined play have remained problems for Cal.
Kevin Wu: Not so great. Dykes was far from a slam dunk for Cal fans when he was hired, hadn’t conducted himself in a way that made Cal fans really want him back, then alienated folks by playing to his leverage to get a new contract. There was a dearth of coaches who would come to Cal and a dearth of top schools that were interested in Dykes - Dykes knew it, Cal Athletics knew it, so we were stuck together.
Dykes has proven himself to not be a good recruiter of defensive talent. He can’t recruit or develop top QBs (that can actually make it onto the field for meaningful snaps). Jared Goff was a gift from Tedford. He got Bowers and Forrest, but passed on them for a grad transfer this season. Dykes leaves a lot for Cal fans to wish for.
CougCenter: Two of the things to which WSU’s defense dedicates itself is limiting big plays in the passing game and generating turnovers. Does Davis Webb have the patience to take underneath throws that will be available while not giving the ball away?
boomtho: It’s a good question, and I’ll say Cal doesn’t really have the ability to consistently and methodically string together drives, though it’s not all on Davis Webb. Davis’ role in this is probably his lessened accuracy and effectiveness throwing over the middle of the field, vs short screens or deep sideline balls. I think he has the patience to play that game (though not as much as Goff), but he’s just not as accurate throwing over the middle of the field.
Second, the offense as a whole isn’t really consistent enough to string together a lot of long drives. The WR’s are really young and have come through with pretty inopportune drops at times and the OL, while a major plus for the most of the year, had a pretty rough game against the ferocious UW defense.
Kevin Wu: No. Webb wants to orchestrate a Bear Raid. Our defense puts Webb in positions to have to launch the ball often, which leads much room for mistakes. Take those three picks last week as a perfect example of this. We may never knew Webb’s short, underneath game because our defense is so bad that we have to play risky all the time to try to catch-up to other teams.
CougCenter: Chad Hansen is great. Tell us why!
Boomtho: Well first, I’d ask you to start calling him by his given named and start calling him by his ‘true’ name: Chad Handsome.
More seriously, Chad actually is a really cool story. He transferred as a pretty unheralded recruit from Idaho State to be closer to sick family out here, and last year was somewhat buried on the depth chart by a really experienced, talented group of WR’s (Treggs, Anderson, Davis, Harris are all on NFL rosters or training camp squads this year). This year, he was expected to step into the outside role, but potentially take a back seat to the talented freshmen coming in, 5* recruit Demetris Robertson and flashy Melquise Stovall. Instead, he really grabbed a hold of the #1 job, quickly developing a great chemitsry with Davis Webb.
Chad is a pretty complete WR. He’s got good size so he’s a plus in the running game. He has speed that seems to surprise some WR’s can regularly beat CB’s 1 on 1 deep. He’s got good hands and uses his body well to make contested catches.
He’s been banged up (foot injury) and teams have started to shade safety help more explicitly to his side, so I wouldn’t expect a huge game out of him.
Kevin Wu: He’s a cerebral player who runs really good routes and has good hands. He’s someone who has worked really hard at his craft and it’s paid off for him this season.
CougCenter: What will Cal’s defense do to try and slow down Luke Falk and the Air Raid? It seems like the Golden Bears are pretty bad at everything on that side of the ball.
boomtho: For most of the year, Cal’s run defense was actually the major weakness; the pass defense was surprisingly competent, led by CB Darius Allensworth. So of course, Allensworth has missed a couple games, and the players stepping up behind him are relatively inexperienced. The last two games have been a lot rougher from a pass defense perspective, and unless Allensworth and other injured CB Josh Drayden return, I would expect that to continue.
Cal also doesn’t really have a pass rush, at all, to help disrupt the passing game. It’s been a major weakness of every Dykes defense at Cal.
Kevin Wu: Nothing. Cal’s defense will get gassed by the end of the first half. This will not be a pretty game for Cal fans to witness.
CougCenter: If a defensive player was going to jump up and make a series of plays that stuns us, who would it be?
boomtho: I’ll call out two. DT James Looney has been pretty much the only bright spot on the DL for the past two years. He’s undersized but really quick, especially his first step, and he’ll make a couple disruptive plays if WSU ever decides to run the ball.
In the secondary, I’ll mention S Luke Rubenzer, who is a converted QB. He’s got pretty good ball skills so he’s a threat to generate interceptions, though he’s probably a negative in the run game.
Kevin Wu: James Looney is an absolute stud on the D-line. Watch out for him.
CougCenter: More likely outcome -- a Cal victory or the game ending before midnight?
boomtho: I’ll say the game ending before midnight - but not by much (say 11:35-11:50). I expect Cal to struggle to put up points, especially in the 3rd quarter. Let’s go with WSU 45 Cal 31.
Kevin Wu: Game ending before midnight because there will be no reason whatsoever to call timeouts to save the clock. Cal will get destroyed pretty early on in this game. By the second half, our guys should probably start planning their music playlist for the flight home.
What are the keys to the game this week? Who are the Cougars' primary playmakers, and what should we expect?
Michael Preston: You already know about Luke Falk and Gabe Marks in all likelihood so I’ll go with James BOOBIE Williams. We’d heard a lot of hype about the kid from Thursday Night Football practices last season and boy, has he delivered. He’s fast, elusive, physical, all the attributes you want in a really good running back that can also catch the ball out of the backfield. Defensively, I’ll go with Shalom Luani. He moved down to Nickel this season from safety and has been a revelation for the Cougs close to the line.
Britton Ransford: Control the clock and get after the quarterback. WSU is No. 10 in the country in time of possession, holding onto the ball over 33 minutes per game. That can be directly attributed to their success on third down, which they convert nearly 49 percent of the time -- that’s good for No. 12 in the country and tops in the Pac-12.
We’re accustomed to big, explosive plays in this matchup, but Luke Falk and the WSU offense have been a little shy to throw the ball deep, instead leaning on their much-improved running game led by Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and BOOBIE Williams to move the sticks methodically. If WSU breaks off a bunch of big plays, it’ll be the result of missed tackles or blown coverage, as they’ll continually eat up the Cal defense underneath, as you guys are well-aware.
In their 69-7 win over Arizona last week, WSU had a ton of success getting after the quarterback, piling up 10 tackles-for-loss, including five sacks. Hercules Mata’afa will get most of the attention, and deservedly so, but keep an eye out for Nnamdi Oguayo, who picked up his first three career sacks last week.
Jeff Nusser: A big key for me this week is WSU’s capacity to limit Cal’s big plays. The Cougs have had the good fortune of facing a lot of not very good quarterbacks recently, and it’s allowed them to be a bit more attack minded up front than they might otherwise have been. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has placed a premium on not allowing explosives, so I anticipate we’ll see a shift back to what WSU has used to great success over the past two seasons: Playing a little soft in the back end to force the quarterback to make a lot of completions without turning the ball over.
Kyle Sherwood: Maybe not fake any punts that get returned for touchdowns or miss field goals inside the five as the clock expires. If the Cougs can put that together, I’m gravy.
Any predictions for how this week will go?
Preston: WSU’s offense has been on an absolute tear against the bottom of the barrel defensive teams in the conference and Cal might be the one all the way at the bottom. I have no worry about the offense’s ability to score but rather the defense’s ability to stop Davis Webb. I think the Cougs do enough though, so call it 48-28.
Ransford: While the Cougars have won 7 consecutive games, it’s been a weird, back-and-forth stretch where they’ve looked unbeatable at times and also extremely vulnerable. However, this team just finds ways to win, and they’re getting contributions from all three phases to do so. Coming off their most complete game of the season, I expect WSU to win handily against an overmatched Cal defense that just had their doors blown off by the only offense in the conference ahead of the Cougs. After a close, back-and-forth first half, I think the WSU defense gets a few takeaways to lead WSU to a 47-24 win.
Nusser: I think it’ll be one of those games where it feels like the Cougs are controlling the contest while holding Cal at arm’s length. The Golden Bears are going to score points, which will make it a game that still looks like it might be in doubt into the fourth quarter. But ultimately, I don’t think Cal can quite keep up. Let’s go 45-38, WSU.
Sherwood: I’d say WSU wins this running away but there’s some sort of monkey’s paw curse around the Cal game every year. I’m guessing 83-82 Cougs.
Why does Washington State seem to always drop a game against an FCS school before tearing through the Pac-12?
Preston: Didn’t used to! Sucks now! This year, I don’t think it was a matter of them not taking an opponent seriously. Eastern gave them a run for their money in 2012, has beaten Oregon State, and won a national championship not so long ago. Not really an excuse (an FCS team is an FCS team is an FCS team and you SHOULD beat them) but one we could at least see coming.
Portland State last year? I got nothing. The weather was awful, the Cougs couldn’t do a dang thing through the air and Portland State is not EWU in terms of success. Hell, bad Paul Wulff teams had blown their doors off. Others will have better explanations, I’m just still mad about my bar tab from that game.
Ransford: WSU was really good against FCS teams when they were really bad! I mean, they clearly have the talent to beat these little schools and I hate the “well, Portland State was good and Eastern is really good!” narrative, because they’re *not really good* when you’re playing at the FBS level. It just comes down to not focusing, then butt puckering, then, “oh, crap, we’re going to lose.” Then, they get mad or whatever and play well against good teams. I don’t even know. Go Montana State, though, if it results in 9-10 wins every year.
Nusser: For whatever reason, it takes these guys a couple of games to figure their stuff out. All I can do now is laugh and shrug.
Sherwood: 0-1 is who we are. This year is the first year we’ve stopped fighting it.
When should we expect College Gameday in Pullman?
Preston: Whenever the Cubs win their next World Series.
Nusser: I’ve made peace with the fact that it’s probably never going to actually happen.
Sherwood: There’s more hype to be made by pretending they’re finally going to come than than for actually showing up. If they did, we’d be the dog who caught the car. What do we do now?
Mike Leach is an example of an Air Raid coach who also successfully fields a good defense. As a school working on the latter, what's your secret?
Preston: Hiring a young, hungry secondary coach from the SEC who has zero experience as a defensive coordinator in a season when you almost certainly had to finish with a winning record ... apparently.
Ransford: Basically what Preston said. The hire wasn’t a popular one when it was announced, and certainly not so a few games into last season, but it took a little for everyone to buy in on the defensive side. Grinch has an infectious, intense coaching style that reverberates throughout the entire depth chart. Gabe Marks even mentioned this year that, while he’s never in the same huddle, Grinch’s demeanor on the field elevates his level of play every day. But yeah, I like the unconventional, inexperienced route Leach went instead of hiring another retread. He struck gold.
Nusser: While I think Grinch is a real bright guy and does a nice job of mixing things up enough to keep opposing offenses off balance, I think his success is actually fairly simple to explain. When you’re maybe not quite as big and athletic as the teams you’re playing, what do you do? Tailor the scheme to those guys: Tell them to keep everything in front of them, be sure in their tackling, and go the extra mile for any chance possible to take the ball away. You’re still going to give up points, but you also hopefully are trading touchdowns for field goals while your offense does the opposite — or, even better, ending drives deep in your own territory without giving up any points at all.
Sherwood; Find a Shalom Luani. I’m not sure the Coug defense would be much better than Cal without him.
What's your favourite piece of Mike Leach advice?
Preston: “Well, yanno this one time I was up in, uh, Alaska with some pals, uh, ***COUGH***, yanno, tooling around the Chugach looking for some bears to hunt and, uh, we had just spent 4 days in a cabin icehole ***COUGH*** fishing … “
/tiny mice from Babe voice: “THREE WEEKS LATER”
“Anyway, that’s why you shouldn’t put money in T-notes.”
Ransford: Not so much advice, but this is a solid quote from his Texas Tech days on officials, because Pac-12 and whatnot: “It’s a little like breakfast; you eat ham and eggs. As coaches and players, we’re like the ham. You see, the chicken’s involved but the pig’s committed. We’re like the pig, they’re like the chicken. They’re involved, but everything we have rides on this.” Also, #NeverPunt.
Nusser: I think his dating advice is pretty solid if you want to figure out pretty quickly if someone is a good match.
Who do you want to punch in the face?
Preston: Husky fans who think we should root for them because they root for us when we play anyone but them.
Ransford: Jim Mora. He’s kinda douchey.
Nusser: I’ll just go ahead and offer up another vote for each of those.
Sherwood: People who think a hot dog is a sandwich.