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More than you need to know about Cougs vs. Cal

The Washington State Cougars host the California Golden Bears on Saturday afternoon. Let’s break down what might happen, even though we truly have no idea.

WSU football vs. Cal preview Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The Washington State Cougars will conclude the known, but not really known, part of their 2020 schedule when they host the California Golden Bears on Saturday afternoon (1 pm PT, FOX). The two sides' yearly meeting has produced plenty of nonsense, tomfoolery, and downright annoying football in recent years. What could be more fitting in 2020 than another obnoxious and baffling outcome?

Since it is 2020, it’s hard actually to find a final score that would be surprising. Everything seems on the table in this shortened season where game times and games themselves are moved around constantly. The Golden Bears have proven to embrace the randomness well, starting the season with three consecutive losses to UCLA, Oregon State, and Stanford before toppling Oregon.

The Cougs are licking their wounds after a first-quarter shellacking from USC, which also had three other mostly meaningless quarters attached to it because those are the rules of college football. Somehow, WSU is favored pretty heavily by Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric, which predicts a 37-27 victory for the Cougs.

That score would be as weird as anything, so it makes sense. Let’s dig into the players and trends that could lead to a 10-point Cougars win or any other result along the spectrum of possibilities.

When Cal has the ball...

The overall metrics don’t look great for Cal’s offense. It sits at 78th in SP+, 113th in Success Rate (how often the offense gets the appropriate number of yards to stay on schedule), and is averaging a paltry 4.47 yards per play. That number would be just average for a college rushing attack; it is bad as a total measure of offensive output.

Cal drops back to pass only slightly more than it runs. So far, sacks have been an issue, with the Golden Bears giving up 15 sacks on 153 dropbacks (sacks + passes). A sack on nearly 10 percent of pass plays is not great.

When quarterback Chase Garbers does throw the ball, Cal hasn't been particularly explosive. He is averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt on his 138 passes, with six touchdowns against three interceptions. Cal logs a completion greater than 15 yards about three times a game or 7.2 percent of dropbacks.

Garbers spreads most of his targets to four different pass-catchers. Kekoa Crawford is the top guy, grabbing 19 passes for 232 yards and two scores this season. Makai Polk provides a big-body threat, checking in at 6’3, 200, which he has used to snag 17 for 183 in four games. Nikko Remigio is the possession guy, picking up just 90 yards on 10 catches with two touchdowns, and tight end Jake Tonges will be a tough guard in short-yardage at 6’5, 240.

Given that Cal attempts to run the ball almost 50 percent of the time, that qualifies it as a running offense in this era. Garbers is a threat to run from the quarterback spot, having logged 24 carries for 156 yards and two touchdowns when taking out sacks. Overall, the Golden Bears have logged 4.42 yards per non-sack carry.

There’s definitely not an every-down back for Cal, with four different running backs getting significant carries this season. Damien Moore and Marcel Dancy have been the most effective backs, both averaging over five yards per carry. Expect Christopher Brown Jr. and Bradrick Shaw more in short-yardage situations.

The most likely player to pick up a big play in the running game is probably Garbers, as he’s collected 10 or more yards on over 20 percent of his non-sack carries. Without him, the team gets more than 10 on roughly 10 percent of rushes.

For the most part, Cal has struggled to be explosive while also struggling to be efficient. However, WSU’s defense is still WSU’s defense. The Cougs give up their fair share of explosives, particularly in the passing game. Depending on who can play in the secondary for Wazzu, Cal could find success where it hasn’t so far this season.

The Cougs will certainly have to bring some of the solid run defense it displayed against USC, but Cal will run more traditional run-blocking schemes, so there may not be a lot of carryover in that area.

When WSU has the ball...

A Justin Wilcox-led team is certainly going to be defense-focused, but up until the Oregon win, Cal’s defense went through its struggles. Still, the overall numbers aren’t good—the Golden Bears rank 80th in defensive SP+ and 118th in success rate against.

Strangely, Cal has seen far more runs against than rushes so far this season. The Golden Bears have seen just 112 dropbacks, sacking the quarterback seven times in those opportunities. Linebacker Cameron Goode (3 sacks) and lineman JH Tevis (2 sacks) have been the top sackers.

When teams do get a pass off, they are logging a respectable 7.5 yards per attempt. Plays of 15 or more yards have come on 15.2 percent of dropbacks. For comparison, WSU has passed for more than 15 yards on 13.6 percent of dropbacks.

On the ground, Cal’s opponents have picked up a solid 4.9 yards per carry (adjusted for sacks). Big plays have been harder to come by, with just under 9 percent of carries going for 10 or more yards. The Cougs have rushed for 10 or more yards on 17.9 percent of rushes.*

*Side note: If you are tracking these big-play numbers week-to-week, you should know that I messed them up in the USC preview.

While Cal has let teams move the ball quite a bit, it has strengthened in the red zone. The Golden Bears have allowed just nine touchdowns and three field goals on 16 redzone trips. Meanwhile, WSU has scored on all 11 trips, seven of those scores being touchdowns.

If the Cougs do move the ball, which they should be able to do, execution in the redzone will be crucial. Cal won’t make it easy inside the 20.

The Bottom Line

Cal hasn’t been consistently good on either side of the ball, and that’s why the Golden Bears are 1-3. However, they did just enough to take down Oregon last weekend, something WSU could not do last month. The Golden Bears defense definitely has the potential to be good, and it has been able to bend without breaking at times this season.

For WSU to have a good offensive day, it’s going to need to return to creating the big plays that it couldn’t find against USC. Cal may see what USC did to WSU by selling out to stop big gains downfield and do the same. If that’s the case, WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura needs to be more consistent on the short-and-medium throws to keep the chains moving. Making plays with his legs and support from Deon McIntosh on the ground should also help.

Can the WSU defense of the final 2.5 quarters against USC be a reality in the future? It’s hard to tell just how much effort USC was putting in, but the Cougs were able to get pressure on the quarterback and have done that in spurts throughout the first three games. Cal has been susceptible to the pass rush, so it will be imperative to get to Garbers and bring him down. If rushers miss, Garber has the ability to make teams pay when scrambling.

Getting Cal behind the chains would be massive, as they haven’t shown much big-play ability yet. Still, the WSU defense often allows offenses to do things they previously weren’t capable of. So, get ready to be frustrated.

On that note, one more reminder this is Cal Week, and frustration will reign supreme. If WSU can get some of the random nonsense to go its way, it could come out of this with a win. But again, it’s Cal—hope for the best but expect the worst.