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Cal Football - Facing WSU in Pullman.

Will the Bears sink the Pirates of the Palouse this weekend?

NCAA Football: Washington at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

After last week’s loss to Washington, Cal has three games to win two in order to become bowl eligible. Although falling to 4-5 has definitely been disappointing, bowling is still a real possibility given the Bears remaining schedule. Both UCLA and Stanford have struggled this year – giving the Bears the opportunity to pick up wins against historical rivals and pick up a couple of late wins. The Bruins have stumbled to a 3-6 record and are missing star QB Josh Rosen. While Stanford still has a winning record at 6-3, they have underperformed and star running back Christian McCaffrey has not met the preseason Heisman hype that the media put onto him. Both of these games are opportunities for the Bears, and facing these teams late in the year may end up being a blessing in disguise for the Bears that leads to bowl eligibility.

While having underperforming teams on the schedule at this desperate time of the season definitely sheds a positive light on the Bears post season chances, Cal must first face a red hot Washington State squad this weekend on the road. The Cougars are 7-2, riding a 7 game winning streak and are second only to the Washington Huskies in the Pac 12 North. This week’s game is not a 100% must win for the Bears to go bowling, but it would be nice to get a victory to bring the post season within closer grasp.

This week we’ll look at the Cougars strengths, and see what areas the Bears can exploit in order to get closer to bowl eligibility.

Slowing Down the Cougars Offense

While the QB spotlight has been on Jake Browning in the Pac 12, Luke Falk has quietly been putting together a stellar season for the Cougs this year. In order for the Bears to win in Pullman this weekend they are going to have to make Falk uncomfortable. So far this year, Falk has thrown for 3237 yards and 28 TD’s with only 5 interceptions, while maintaining a 70% completion rate. While Falk’s play has been stellar, one of the biggest reasons for the Cougars increased success this year has been the emergence of a strong run game. The Cougars have taken the committee approach to the RB position and while they haven’t racked up huge yards, Gerard Wicks, James Williams and Jamal Morrow have combined for 19 TD’s. That added wrinkle to the air raid has kept defenses honest and paid dividends for the Cougars this year.

If the Bear defense is going to be successful in slowing down Luke Falk and the RB stable, they are going to have to win a war of attrition. This year’s defense just does not have the bodies to stonewall anyone and with the firepower the Cougars will bring to the table on Saturday, the key will be for the defense to keep everything in front of them and make the Cougars earn their yards. The air raid relies on mostly short to mid-range passing and opportunistic runs when the box count is in the offenses favor – but if the Bears play too far up, the Cougars will smoke them with the big play over the top. We all know the defense is depleted, but a disciplined, well coached unit should be able to force few stops on Saturday night. This game should show how well the remaining talent on the Bears defense can be coached up.

Against the Cougars Defense

Sonny Dykes should have his notepad out on Saturday – Mike Leach has provided the template for how an offensive minded, air raid style offense can still put a tough, competitive defense on the field. The Cougars success started with the hiring of former Missouri safeties coach Alex Grinch as DC. Grinch made an immediate impact in the secondary and improvement has leaked into the rest of the defense – the Cougars now have a formidable front seven that can get after the quarterback and a secondary that can keep receivers in front of them while the D-line brings the heat. The Cougars are also stout against the rush , ranking 21st overall in rush defense nationwide .

In order for the Bears to score on this much improved Cougars defense, Davis Webb is going to have to get the ball out of his hands quickly and the receivers are going to have to create separation. The Bears didn’t consistently have their timing down last week and the end result showed that – expect a similar result this week if the Bears can’t get it together in the passing game. Opening up the quick strike passing game will lead to more open running lanes which could potentially put these cougars on their heels and turn this into a shootout. If not, standout DE Hercules Mata’afa and his comrades on the D-line will be pressing into the backfield all night.

Wrapping it up

WSU comes into this week favored by nearly two touchdowns, but this game has the potential to be much closer. Mike Leach and Sonny Dykes know each other well and have implemented similar philosophies in their respective programs. The coaching staff understand what Leach is trying to do and although Cal’s defense is severely depleted, if they play disciplined assignment football this game should be much closer than the odds predict. Both teams can put up points, so if Cal’s defense can get the stops that we know WSU’s defense will this will be a shootout. Because of the level of familiarity here, no one should be too surprised if this one ends in an upset – we’ll see on Saturday night.