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Pre-Snap Read: Previewing No. 8 WSU vs. Cal

The Golden Bears really are struggling, and it’s probably up to the Cougs to not screw this up.

Mississippi v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The No. 8 Washington State Cougars went down to Eugene last Saturday and came back with bowl eligibility and an unblemished record. The Cougs (6-0 overall, 3-0 Pac-12) trip down to Berkeley to face the California Golden Bears (3-3, 0-3) in Memorial Stadium on Friday night, amidst a raging wildfire near the region.

So ... internet traffic says you’re concerned about air quality in the Bay Area.

Michael Preston has been tracking the updates on the Air Quality Index (AQI) measure for the Bay Area, which is an EPA metric for assessing the pollutants’ health effects after a few hours or days of exposure. The metric runs from 0 (perfectly healthy) to 500 (hazardous), and is composed of five pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (the major wildfire concern), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Any observation above 200 is deemed too unhealthy for athletes to compete by the NCAA — and would trigger a cancellation — with 150 being the assumed ceiling for play to continue unimpeded.

As of Thursday night, Cal plans to treat poor air quality observations, roughly between 150 and 200, like a lightening delay — clearing the field of play and waiting for a better AQI measure. Strong evening winds coming off the Bay are expected and that dense, quickly moving air should help clear the area by the late kick-off time.

Check on the current AQI for the Oakland Area here.

You can donate to victims of California’s wildfires through the Napa Valley Community Foundation here.

Cal started out 2017 way hotter than anyone predicted, picking up a road win over North Carolina and a home win over Ole Miss. The Tar Heels have since lost to everyone but Old Dominion, and Ole Miss is playing for nothing this season after their head coach was fired for texting prostitutes during the offseason. Wins are wins, but that great start looks less and less like it was Cal’s fault.

The Golden Bears have gotten waxed by Oregon and Washington in the last two weeks after playing three competitive quarters against USC in their Pac-12 opener. Cal is hoping to rebound from a game in Seattle where they didn’t score an offensive touchdown.

NCAA Football: California at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Wilcox took over for Sonny Dykes this off-season as the Golden Bears reversed track and hired a “defensive guy” to replace a “spread offense guy” for the first time in a long time. Wilcox was previously a defensive coordinator for Boise State (2006-2009), Tennessee (2010-2011), Washington (2012-2013), USC (2014-2015), and Wisconsin (2016).

Cal is currently 89th in scoring defense (29.83 points per game) and 103rd in total yards allowed (436.5).

Wilcox brought in the head coach of Fresno State, Tim DeRuyter to head the defense. California Golden Blogs has a detailed breakdown of his coaching history. DeRuyter emphasizes the “Joker” outside linebacker position as a pass rusher and overall havoc generator in his aggressive 3-4 scheme. He wants to “change the clock in the quarterback’s head” by getting after the quarterback and forcing bad decisions.

On the offensive side, Wilcox went to the Big Sky and plucked head coach Beau Baldwin from Eastern Washington to lead his offense. Despite what some might think, Baldwin’s offense isn’t a set-in-stone concept. It has roots in Mike Price’s and Dennis Erickson’s single-back passing offenses, but it also incorporates some RPO (run-pass option) and more modern spread-run game concepts.

It evolves with personnel and was more free-wheeling at quarterback with guys like Vernon Adams and Gage Gabrud taking snaps at Eastern than it currently is with the Golden Bears.

Cal is still searching out that offensive identity. They are ranked below 100th nationally in percentage of plays for a TD or first down (26.16%), 3rd down conversions (33.01%), interceptions (1.33 per game), rushing yards (96.83 per game), total first downs (18.5 per game), total yards (345.17 per game), yards per pass attempt (6.34), and yards per rush attempt (2.95).

What has me concerned about the Cal Golden Bears

Atmosphere: Not the smoke particulates. Tickets are currently available for two whole dollars. Some Cal fans are speculating the crowd could be less that 20,000 and Strawberry Canyon is a notoriously subdued environment to begin with. Wazzu is coming off games against USC, in front of one of the most raucous crowds Martin Stadium has hosted, and the ever-rowdy Autzen.

This will feel more like the spring game. And if the team at all relies on the crowd for “juice” they won’t find it in Memorial Stadium tonight.

Look ahead: If last week was a “let down” spot, this week is a “look ahead” spot. This year’s Cougs haven’t given any real indication — in play or interviews — that they haven’t adopted Coach Leach’s (and every coach’s) One Game A Week philosophy, but a Top 10 ranking and weak opponent in a sterile environment are things we haven’t seen these players deal with before.

It would be easy for them to get lulled into thinking this win is a given, and you can’t do that with anyone in the Pac-12.

What has me confident in the Cougs

Washington State v Oregon Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Ground Raid: The Cal defense struggles with a lot of things. They especially struggle with stopping the run. They currently rank:

  • 127th against rushing success rate (where gaining 50 percent of yardage toward the sticks on first down, 70 percent of remaining yardage on second down and 100 percent of remaining yardage on third or fourth down constitutes “success”)
  • 126th in opportunity rate, allowing 44.9 percent of rush attempts to go at least five yards.
  • 124th in power success rate, allowing 86.4 percent of rush attempts with two yards or less to the sticks to pick up a first down or touchdown.
  • 118th in Stuff Rate, stopping only 14.6 percent of rush attempts at or behind the line of scrimmage.

This smells a little like the Oregon game last season, where the Cougs unleashed a surprise ground attack that racked up 273 yards on 35 rush attempts for 7.8 yards per carry.

Time: Cal quarterback (for now) Ross Bowers will have none of it. The Golden Bears’ QB gets sacked on 9 percent of his dropbacks, including 12 times in the last two games. Wazzu sacks the quarterback on 11.6 percent of dropbacks on standard downs (5th) and 13.8 percent of dropbacks on passing downs (8th).

Luke Falk, however, will have all of it. Cal hasn’t generated a ton of heat on opposing quarterbacks, counter to what their defensive coordinator would like. They’ve dropped opposing QBs on only 2.2 percent of dropbacks on standard downs (110th) and on 7.6 percent of passing down dropbacks (58th).

How I see this game playing out

There’s a little concern the Cougs come out flat but not enough to sway how this game plays out on paper.

Vegas has the Cougs as a 16-point favorite after the line opened at WSU -14.5, and the Over/Under sits at 55 — predicting WSU 35 - 20 Cal. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ sees it similarly, predicting a final score of WSU 37.1 - 17.8 Cal.

WSU controls the game from the opening kick. The Cougs run more than we’ve seen in previous games, getting Jamal Morrow over 15 carries for near 150 yards. Gerard Wicks and James Williams both add another 15 or so carries for another 100 yards.

The passing game does it’s standard thing, with Falk notching another type of 350 yard and 4 TD performance.

Cal gets behind on the scoreboard and is forced to abandon their typically balanced offense (40 pass attempts to 32 rush attempts), which already favors the pass an extraordinary amount on passing downs (122nd in passing down run rate, just 18 percent of plays). This allows the #SpeedD more pass rush opportunities; they’ve typically faced run plays on roughly 40 percent of passing downs.

The Coug front lives in Cal’s backfield and only a couple poor run fits and blown pass coverages by redshirt freshman linebackers keep WSU from pitching a shutout.

Final Score: WSU 42 - 14 Cal