The Washington State Cougars host the California Golden Bears on Saturday afternoon in Martin Stadium (2:30 pm PT, Pac-12 Networks). Both teams are 3-1, but Cal has already notched its first conference win of the season after beating Arizona quite handily last weekend. Wazzu is hoping to bounce back from a gut-punch of a loss to Oregon.
Playing Cal always brings with it an added level of stress for Washington State fans. Nothing seems to ever quite go as expected in these games, and there is always more than one curious play that you’d only see once every few years at best in college football.
Sometimes the oddities favor the Cougs, as they did last season when Ron Stone picked up a blocked punt and ran it for a first down. That drive eventually ended in a touchdown for WSU en route to a surprising 21-6 win.
What is in store for this strange matchup on a pristine Palouse Saturday? It’s impossible to predict, so I’ll carry on with this preview as if everything is normal.
The Most Interesting Thing About Cal
Even more notable than Cal’s big win over Arizona was the huge day freshman running back Jaydn Ott had against the wildcats. Ott ran for 274 yards on just 19 carries. It’s clear that he has some big play ability if given an opening.
WSU’s run defense is likely several notches above Arizona’s, so don’t expect Ott to go for 14 yards a rush again. However, it will be important for the Cougs to be sound on defense, and be aware of cutback lanes.
Another Interesting Thing About Cal
Cal has nine sacks on the season, but none of those have come from a player categorized as a defensive lineman. Outside linebacker Xavier Carlton leads the way with 2.5 sacks and the rest of the sack total has been logged by other outside linebackers, inside linebackers, and a safety.
WSU quarterback Cam Ward will need to be aware of rushers coming from standing positions, and be able to identify blitzes and stunts. Quick-hitters over the middle of the field or screen game could prove to be effective against pass-rushing linebackers.
On top of sacks, just 0.5 of Cal’s 20 tackles for loss total have come from the defensive line. The Cal line is being tasked with occupying blockers rather than creating havoc themselves. This is where WSU’s larger line splits could prove to be beneficial—it’s tough for a nose guard to bother two offensive linemen when they are spread farther apart.
Can WSU’s Defense Bounce Back?
After looking dominant through three games, the Cougar defense was shredded by Bo Nix and Oregon last weekend. Cal’s offense is improved over previous seasons under Justin Wilcox, but the Golden Bears don’t have the same level of offensive talent across all positions that the Ducks possess.
What really hurt the Cougs against Oregon was their inability to generate negative plays. WSU thrives on taking teams off schedule with early-down loss plays. The Ducks’ offensive line combined with Nix’s mobility proved too stout to let that happen.
The good news for WSU? Cal’s offense has been nowhere near Oregon’s level at avoiding negative plays. The Golden Bears have already allowed 12 sacks in four games (slightly more than the zero that the Ducks have allowed). Cal has also given up 10 tackles-for-loss on running plays.
There will be more opportunity for loss plays against Cal, and that is just what WSU needs to get back to effective defense.
How WSU Can Win
When WSU has the ball, its offensive line needs to play better than it has in recent weeks. Cal will be playing to stop screens, and Ward needs the opportunity to check into plays that will punish aggressive play against potential screen passes. That’s not just on the line exclusively, Ward needs to identify where pressure is coming from and adjust protections.
It would help if the Cougs got back to running the ball well with Nakia Watson. WSU struggled to get its ground game going against Oregon, but teams are averaging just over five yards a carry on non-sack rushing attempts against the Golden Bears. If WSU can match that, it would go a long way in taking some pressure off the passing game.
On the other side, Wazzu needs to create pressure on Cal quarterback Jack Plummer. It also needs to have gap integrity in the ground game, preventing any opportunity for big gains from Ott. WSU’s linebackers will play a huge role in whether or not Ott can break free.
How WSU Can Cover
The Cougs are four-point favorites at the moment. That’s not a massive number to cover, but it can be tricky. Making all extra points is important. Getting touchdowns instead of field goals during redzone trips is important. If WSU can shut Cal drives down repeatedly with sacks—maybe at least four sacks—then that could go a long way into a more comfortable Cougar victory.
If Cal Brings Oski, Don’t Make Eye Contact
I can neither confirm nor deny that Oski is possessed by a demon from the new movie “Smile.” At the very least, he seems like a perfect marketing asset, similar to those smiling weirdos that Smile’s marketers have sent to baseball games and other public events.
I don’t know exactly how the smiles impact anything in “Smile,” but I did just spoil the plot and ending by reading the Wikipedia summary (I have no intention of seeing it). I’m just going to assume bad things happen when you make eye contact with the smiling people. Don’t make eye contact with Oski, he might curse you or something worse.
This goes double for Wazzu football players. For all we know, Oski’s creepy smile has been the direct cause of all the weirdness in Cal-WSU games all along.