Cal football faces defensive test against Washington State’s passing offense

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There are few coaches in college football who are more familiar with Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense than Cal’s Sonny Dykes.

And with the Bears set to square off against Washington State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m., most would expect Dykes — who coached with Leach during stops at both Kentucky and Texas — to have plenty of insider knowledge to give the Bears an upper hand.

But Dykes, despite running an offense rooted in Air Raid ideologies, doesn’t think so.

“The Air Raid is built on simplicity and repetition,” he said. “When you build an offense on those things, he’s not trying to trick you or out-scheme you; he’s trying to out-execute you. Familiarity doesn’t really matter, in a lot of ways.”

On Saturday, the Cougars will bring the No. 14 passing offense in the nation to Berkeley to face off with a defense that is allowing 512 yards an outing — the fifth-worst mark in the country. And while Washington State hasn’t quite developed into the offensive behemoth that Leach built at Texas Tech, the squad could end up resembling one, playing against a Cal defense that has been left reeling from injuries and has given up more than 50 points in its last two outings.

The Cougars have also shown significant improvement in year two of the Leach regime and are already averaging more than eight more points per game.

“You can tell it’s their second year,” Dykes said. “Everything happens faster now than it did a year ago. That simplicity allows your guys to play really fast.”

Cal will need a big day from its defensive line — which has underperformed thus far in 2013 to the tune of just four sacks in four games — in looking to stop a team that leads the nation in pass attempts. Plagued by a combination of inexperience and injuries, defensive end Chris McCain’s dismissal from the team won’t help shore things up.

But the Bears could be poised to see more drop-back passes Saturday than they have all year, as they will square off with an offense that has rushed just 90 times through five games.

“Now we can just let all the dogs loose,” said defensive tackle Viliami Moala. “We can really just go upfield and go get them.”

As for the rest of the squad, they’re probably salivating at the chance to play a team that doesn’t boast a top-five ranking after completing what is undoubtedly the toughest portion of their 2013 schedule.

“A lot of people know a lot about our team because of who we’ve played and how we’ve been exposed in certain situations,” Dykes said. “In the short term it’s painful, but in the long term it’s healthy.”

But the Bears weren’t the only team playing Saturday to get exposed last week, as the Cougars are still licking their wounds after a 55-17 trouncing at the hands of Stanford — a game in which Washington State surrendered 560 total yards.

Although the Cal offense, led by either Jared Goff or Zach Kline, will likely have little trouble putting up points, the Bears’ success both on Saturday and in the rest of the season likely will be determined by whether the defense can become competent.

“If you’re going to win a championship at any level of football, it’s going to be because of your defense,” Dykes said. “That’s just the way it works.”

Connor Byrne covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ctbyrne91.

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