This Saturday, Wazzu heads into Strawberry Canyon to square off against Cal on Kabam Field (real thing). By the time the game kicks off, you will have already heard (or read) the score and yardage totals from last year's game a thousand times. It's unlikely the commentators will let you forget about it once the game begins, no matter what is happening on the field.
Air Raid vs. Bear Raid. Mike Leach vs. Disciple Dykes. Will the scoreboard break? All the over-tread storylines, pounding ruts into what should be an exciting game without all that.
Cal's offense is a juggernaut and Jared Goff is likely the top NFL quarterback prospect in college. These things you know. They rank 34th nationally in Passing S&P+, 16th in Passing Success Rate, and 34th in explosiveness (IsoPPP).
The Wazzu secondary hasn't seen anything close to a quarterback the caliber of Goff, but have gone against the first team receivers on WSU's offense, which are probably just a shade below Cal but in the same ballpark. And they've been unreasonably successful in recent practices.
Dykes, like Leach, has a set of pass concepts that he uses to create space on the field. Some of them are straight Mumme-Leach Air Raid, and some have his own unique twist, but there should be enough familiar elements there to help speed along the DB's process of route recognition. Question is, even if they identify what's coming, can they stop it?
Certain teams have tells, usually by formation or down & distance, that can tip what play they'll throw at a defense. Cal loves this stacked Ace Rip formation when they're in between the hashes. They'll bunch the WRs just inside the numbers, spreading out the defense, and predominantly run a single play that has five different potential results.
*Defense is positioned in a simple Nickel-base
The running back can be on either side. The guard on the side of the running back will pull, if it's play action he slams on the breaks around two yards past the line of scrimmage, if it's the run he hits first color.
Goff makes the decision whether it's run or pass, and it's hard to tell if it's a pre-snap call or if it's made during the mesh with the RB.
If it's pass, he carries out the play fake and stays in the pocket. Receivers are always running their routes regardless. Posts by X and Z (outside WRs), dig/post routes by H and Y (inside receivers). They've broken those off before the slant and sat in front of a safety, curled around an inside backer, and carried it out as a post. That route has real flexibility to read the defense and adjust.
Goff threw at every one of these route options against Washington. They loved this play last weekend.
Cal will also run a stretch zone, where all the lineman reach a gap over, but they seem to prefer letting a pulling guard get busy in the middle of the field on an inside counter. They run it from every formation. You'll also see them utilize a massive RB as a fullback to run power on short yardage downs.
Whenever they brought the inside receiver in tight, it almost always meant he was going across formation.
Washington mostly gave them an odd front on passing downs, which is better for this play (allows a down-block and another lineman on a backer), but Cal did it against Texas' even front too. As a change-up, they bring the inside receiver across formation (like the pulling action) but run stretch zone to the side he left, just in case backers were cheating.
What has me concerned about the Golden Bears?
Jared Goff is really, really good. This is pretty self-explanatory. Goff will be the best QB Wazzu faces this year.
The Bear RBs are really good. Collectively, Cal has the 14th best rushing offense in S&P+. Khalfani Muhammad is averaging 10.7 yards per carry and Daniel Lasco is averaging 5.7 yards per carry. That's worrisome when you see WSU's rush defense is ranked 128th in S&P+...actually it's worse than that, they're ranked below 120th in nearly every advanced statistical metric for rush defense.
Tempo. Cal's offense plays fast (22nd in Adjusted Pace), a lot faster than anything the Coug D has gone up against so far this season. Fortunately they've had two weeks to make sure personnel groupings are well understood, but under fire during game time, that tempo could cause some substitution problems and match-up disadvantages if they aren't on top of things.
Special Teams. [cold shivers run up and down your spine]
Voodoo. Cal made some deal with somebody. Two of their last nine wins only happened because a kicker missed a gimme attempt. One of their interceptions straight bounced off an unsuspecting receiver's helmet on a slant route for a walk-in pick-six. Washington gave them five extra possessions last weekend. Five.
The crew at California Golden Blogs offered their thoughts
What are you most confident in about your Cal Bears?
Berkelium97: Jared Goff. That answer is vague, but it's because I have confidence in everything Goff does. He is a magician with this offense.
boomtho: I am confident that Goff and the offense will put up enough points to give us a great chance to win. Goff is in Year 3 of commanding the Bear Raid, and somehow he's gotten even better despite his last year being pretty damn great already. The WR corps is absolutely stacked, both with top end talent (Treggs, Anderson, and Lawler could start for most teams in the country), but also fantastic depth (Darius Powe was kind of the unsung hero of last game, feasting on intermediate crossing routes). RB depth, which honestly coming into the season was a big concern, has been better than Cal fans had any right to expect - we knew Lasco would be good, but both power back Vic Enwere and speedster Khalfani Muhammad have improved their ability to grind out tough yards between the tackles. The one weakness is potentially the OL, but they've been good enough (so far!) to keep the ball moving.
Scott Chong: Our special teams kickoff coverage. I am positive that they will give the other team mind-blowing field position every single time.
Nikjam: Jared Goff and the wide receivers more often than not get it done. It is amazing how clutch the receivers are, aside from one play at the end of the Texas game, when the team needs a big play.
What has me confident in Wazzu
Cal's secondary. Cal is allowing 13.85 yards per completion, and has mediocre Havoc Rate rankings of 51st for DBs and 89th for LBs. On average they've faced 30 attempts per game, and allowed 15 completions. Falk will make them prove that defensed passes to incompletions ratio of 37.3 pct they established is close to reality, and test their ability to tackle in space...which appeared to be a bit of an issue against the Huskies and Longhorns.
Cal's rush defense. We already went over this. Relying on the ground game would be taking things a little too far out of their element, but there should be a handful of opportunities during the game to gash the Bears, particularly on passing downs around midfield.
Mobile Agile Hostile. Goff doesn't boot out of play action or roll out of the pocket very often. He has exceptional pocket mobility, and can get out of trouble a little bit, but for the most part he's going to be teed up behind the center. Cal is currently posting an 8.3 pct Sack Rate on passing downs...and the WSU pass rush is no joke.
Fading late. Cal's defense starts games slow, plays the second and third quarter around average, then the bottom falls out and they rank 128th in fourth quarter S&P+. Conversely, WSU's offense has been at it's best late in games, ranking 28th in fourth quarter S&P+. Late game heroics are not out of the question in this one.
Due. Cal is due. But more to our concern, the WRs are due for a massive game. It's bound to happen sooner or later, and a fair, early fall day in California might as well be it.
On the road again. WSU loves road games, it's weird but it's their thing.
So, Golden Blogs...
What scares you about Wazzu?
Berkelium97: Dom Williams.
boomtho: I still believe our secondary is the weakest part of our defense, despite tremendous improvement from CB's Darius White and Darius Allensworth (shockingly no cool nickname for the duo yet!). WSU will spread us out and make players make 1:1 tackles in space, and obviously that battle tilted significantly in WSU's favor last year. I'm worried that this type of wide open, quick-paced matchup is exactly where our defense will struggle most.
Scott Chong: River Cracraft. You cannot convince me that he's not part wizard, part vampire, part robot sent from the future to destroy us all.
Nikjam: They scored 59 on us last year and it could easily have been 62 or 66. Even with a new QB it's hard not to imagine them doing it again. Cal's defense could be in for a big wake up call if they aren't ready or healthy.
This isn't so much about Wazzu but... Our offense hasn't been able to put away games lately. We saw the team score 0 points in the fourth quarter against Texas and barely muster a FG against Washington. We've seen the defense give up leads to teams like Texas and Arizona last year, but in every case the offense could have put the game away themselves. (Remember it was a 21-point lead against Texas and an even larger one against Arizona) but they kept shooting themselves in the foot. If Cal's offense sputters, look for the Cougars to put a big scare into the Memorial Stadium faithful.
How I see the game playing out
I wish I had a clue, but I really don't. At all. I still carry the hope this team plays to the opponent; we watched them do it three times with bottom-barrel teams but have no idea if they'll play up to good teams. And Cal is pretty good. They're also a stupid level of fortunate right now and WSU would most likely need a few breaks to keep pace.
Let's shoot from the hip and optimistically guess WSU 51 - 45 Cal.
Berkelium97: Cal builds a big lead, Wazzu chips away during the second half, and incidence of cardiac arrest spikes throughout California as we hold onto another narrow victory.
boomtho: On paper, Cal should win - they have a better offense, a much better defense, and... let's not talk about special teams, shall we?
More seriously, I do believe Cal should win. I don't see WSU slowing Cal significantly - UW has a pretty damn good front 7 and Cal still put up 30. People will tell you that the 30 was heavily turnover aided, but we were also stopped twice on 4th down, including on the 1 yard line, so I feel 30 accurately reflects how our offense moved the ball against a UW defense.
I think Cal will struggle to slow down WSU early, but we'll get just enough stops in the 3rd quarter to create a ~2 TD lead, which we won't relinquish.
I don't think Cal is going to cover - last I checked the line was up to about 20.
[Editor's Note: The V.I. consensus line is currently (Friday morning) at WSU +17.5]
Scott Chong: It's a shootout early. Neither team can stop the other. Cal takes a two touchdown lead because Goff makes fewer mistakes than Falk...but then it's squandered by our special teams. We pump the brakes and try to run out the clock with our vaunted four minute offense...which promptly goes three and out repeatedly. Our defense earns a measure of redemption by sacking Falk to seal the game, but only after the refs blow several controversial calls which leaves both coaches in a perpetual state of stank-eye.