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PREVIEW: More than you need to know about WSU vs. Cal

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Washington State will attempt to avoid weirdness when they head to Berkeley on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars and California Golden Bears are each in desperate need of a win as they meet on Saturday afternoon. Both teams held much higher hopes, possible Pac-12 title hopes, earlier in the season. Now, at 4-4, WSU and Cal are relegated to scrapping and crawling for those final wins to secure bowl eligibility.

Cal has, unsurprisingly, become a defensive bunch since Justin Wilcox took over as head coach. I don’t mean that they are constantly trying to defend themselves, but I kinda do—given the way the Cal offense has performed lately, Cal’s defense is on the field pretty often.

What I actually meant is Cal has flipped from the offense-focused, Air Raid program it was under Sonny Dykes, to a wholly defensively focused team under Wilcox. That defense has been pretty solid, too, and is a big reason why Cal was garnering some high recognition early in the season.

But that was early. Cal has suffered some setbacks in the injury department since then. With that note, let’s dig into the Cal offense.


When Cal has the ball...

Cal wasn’t a good offense before starting quarterback Chase Garbers went down. Apparently, he was the only thing keeping them from being dreadful. The Bears have taken just three redzone trips in their last three games. They just aren’t moving the ball.

The Golden Bears are 125th in yards per play. They are 123rd in yards per passing attempt. To make things worst, Cal is just 109th in rushing yards per attempt. This offense is bad no matter what they do.

We know that the WSU defense is also not so good. Are they bad on the levels of Cal’s offense? Probably not, but they are very bad at defending the run and the pass, despite recent improvements.

Odds are Cal will look a little better on offense than they have, and WSU’s defense will look a lot better than they have against teams like Arizona State and Oregon.

If you are desperately looking for that Golden Bear that might ruin your day, I have a couple options: Marcel Dancy leads the team in yards per carry at a whopping 4.34. Perhaps he is the one that will bust open a big run. There’s also Jordan Duncan, who is averaging almost 15 yards a catch (although his production has been significantly hampered since Garbers was injured).

Backup quarterback Devon Modster has been downright bad since taking over for Garbers. He has completed just 46 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He has been about as bad as a Pac-12 quarterback can be. He might play, he might not play.

If the Coug defense allows more than 21 points in this game in normal conditions, that’s a pretty bad sign. Even allowing that much would be disappointing, but I’m always trying to hedge. There’s an outside chance that Garbers plays, but that is not likely. If he is not playing, this Cal offense is among the worst in the country. If he is playing, they are still not very good.


When WSU has the ball...

As anticipated, Cal’s defense is pretty good. However, the Golden Bears haven’t been the elite squad that we might have expected. They are 28th in SP+, still solid, but not as highly rated as the Oregon defense that WSU put up five touchdowns against two weeks ago.

Some of that dip in defense is due in part to Cal’s inept offense. Evan Weaver and company have been on the field a lot, and that may be leading to some fatigue.

Still, Weaver will make plays. It’s what the Spokane product does, especially against his local team WSU. You know he is extra motivated against the Cougs, so I fully expect him to be extra disruptive on Saturday.

Cal’s defense gets most of its quarterback pressure from linebackers like Weaver. He is second on the team with 2.5 sacks and fellow linebacker/rush guy Cameron Goode leads the team with 4.5 sacks. Overall, the Golden Bears have been pretty good at getting to the QB with 20 sacks. However, with all the throws that WSU takes, the Cougs have only allowed eight sacks in eight games.

The Golden Bears have been good against the pass—31st in yards per pass against, and 45th in passing success rate against. Still, the Coug offense is third in passing success rate and 15th in yards per pass. Cal has been good, but they haven’t been dominant against the pass.

Offenses have been able to move the ball between the 20s against the Golden Bears. Cal is just 104th in scoring opportunity rate allowed (inside the 40), and is 82nd in redzone drive rate. Teams are moving, but once they get close to the endzone, Cal does become tougher. The Golden Bears are 22nd in redzone touchdown rate.

That’s against a WSU offense that is 28th in redzone touchdown rate, but also ninth in redzone drive rate. Odds are the Cougs will be deep in Cal territory often. What determines if this game remains close is how well Cal can prevent WSU from getting into the endzone on those drives.


The Bottom Line

Cal’s defense is good, but its offense has been so bad to the point where it has torpedoed a once promising season. It’s like reverse Cougs, but the Cal offense is worse than WSU’s defense and the Cal defense is not quite as dominant as WSU’s offense.

So, it would seem that WSU should win this thing handily. However, there is weirdness every time the Cougs play Cal, particularly in Berkeley. I can try to be objective with this analysis, but deep in my heart I know something crazy is going to happen.

Most often, that craziness has benefited the Golden Bears. In 2013, many goal-line fumbles benefited the Washington State Cougars. If the weirdness benefits Wazzu, this could be a Cougar victory going away. If the weirdness is once again in Cal’s favor, we could see a tight game.

Whatever happens, both teams need this win. So it will be hard fought and strange. Very strange.