Washington State and Cal are very similar teams. Both have explosive offenses, barely-there defenses, poor special teams and they both have trouble scoring in the red zone. All the similarities should be expected though, since Cal coach Sonny Dykes worked for Washington State head coach Mike Leach for six years while they were at Texas Tech.
There are some major differences too. Although Dykes runs a variant of the Air Raid offense that he learned from Leach at Texas Tech, he has made some big changes by incorporating the run game into what some call the "Bear" Raid offense. The Bear Raid has kept the potent passing attack that Leach has made famous, and also boasts a strong running game. While Leach will pass the ball more than 70% of the time, Dykes' Bear Raid is much more balanced and runs almost half of the time. That mix of potent passing and frequent running keeps opposing defenses guessing and on their heals.
The 24th ranked Bears (4-0) will be a stiff challenge for Washington State. The Cougars (2-1) are still stinging after an opening day loss to lowly Portland State. Since then they have beaten Rutgers and Wyoming, and a win over Cal would go a long ways for their confidence and bowl hopes.
The Cougars open conference play this week with the 24th ranked California Bears. The Bears are undefeated at 4-0 and ranked in the top-25 for the first time since 2010. The Bears are full of confidence after beating both Texas and Washington on the road. While at first glance that seems impressive, the Bears almost gave both games away after blowing early leads. They beat Texas 45-44 on a late missed extra point by Texas and barely beat Washington 30-24. The Bears had early leads in both games and had to struggle to hold on for the wins. While wins over Washington (2-2) and Texas (1-3) are impressive most years, both teams aren't their usual selves and are struggling this season.
Cal is a very potent offensive team led by junior quarterback Jared Goff, who is widely considered the best quarterback in college football. They are 13th in the nation in total offense and rack up 542 yards a game. On the defensive side of the ball the Bears are 69th in the nation and surrender 382 yards a game. That stat is a little misleading considering they have played San Diego State, Texas and Washington, who are not exactly offensive juggernauts. Washington State will be the first good offense they have played this season. Cal is below average on special teams, with kickoffs and kickoff returns being their biggest problems.
Cal is well-balanced offensive team, with 192 yards per game rushing and 357 yards per game passing. Similar to the Cougars, they have had problems scoring in the red zone.
The Cougars will need to slow down Cal's offense in order to win this one. They will have to stop or at least contain the Bear running game, something the Cougars have struggled with this year. They can accomplish this in different ways, the easiest being to score early, get way ahead and force Cal out of their game plan. If that doesn't work, they will have to have great defensive line and linebacker play. Staying in their gaps and lanes will be imperative, as well as good tackling. The Bears best running back, Daniel Lasco, missed last week with an injury but should be back this week against the Cougars. If he is slowed by the injury still it will greatly benefit the Cougars.
If they can contain the Cal runners it will force Cal to become one-dimensional, something they haven't been this season. With the run game contained, the Cougars will have to pressure Goff, leading to sacks and incompletions. Finally the Cougars must have a "bend-don't-break" defensive philosophy and stop the Bears when they get into the red zone. Holding them to field goals instead of allowing touchdowns will be vital to winning the game.
Offensively, the Cougars need quarterback Luke Falk to play a near-perfect game. He will have to complete most of his passes and move the ball up and down the field efficiently. The Cougars must be good in the red zone and punch the ball in for touchdowns.
Gabe Marks has been very good at receiver for the Cougars, but some of the other receivers need to step-up their games and deliver some good catches for WSU to win this game. California hasn't played a good offense yet, so it will be interesting to see if they can stop the Cougar passing attack.
It will be very important in this game for Mike Leach to make good decisions. He has frequently gone for it on fourth down, with mixed results. Points will be important in this game, and Leach needs to trust kicker Eric Powell to make field goals and come out of the red zone with points. The Cougars must also do a better job returning punts and kickoffs, something that Cal has also had problems with.
Key to the Game:
The key to this game will be the red zone. These teams will move the ball, but the one who converts in the red zone more efficiently will pull away. The Cougars have been in the red zone 11 times this year, and have scored six TD's. Cal has been in the red zone 28 times and scored 18 TD's.
Player to Watch:
Luke Falk needs to be razor-sharp for the Cougars to win this one.
Despite being favored by 19 points, Cal will have a tough time against the Cougars. They haven't faced an offense like WSU's yet and it will test them. This will be a close one, but Cal runs out of luck and the Cougs pull it out late.