Cal football travels north for battle of high flying offenses

Michael Tao/Senior Staff

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A last-second Hail Mary. A goal-line stand on fourth down. In the last two weeks, the Bears and their fans have seen heart rates spike to crazy levels. It’s hard to imagine how after two crazy weeks — which head coach Sonny Dykes joked made him age 100 years — this week could get any crazier. But it’s the Cal football team, and if this season has shown one thing at all, it’s that absolutely anything can happen when this team steps out on the field.

Still, when the Bears (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) take on Washington State (2-3, 1-1) on Saturday night, Cal will be hoping to have everything go right for it to start the game, saving it from any last-second heartbreakers or heart-attack-inducing last-minute stops.

But with two teams with head coaches from the “air-raid” school of play, expect another high-scoring matchup with two high-intensity, high-pressure, fast-paced offenses. Both teams have strong passing offenses — the Cougars are No. 1 in passing yards in the FBS, while the Bears are No. 8.

“You look at the last two weeks, (Colorado) is a good football team and a team that can probably play with and beat anybody,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “But I think our guys are excited and are looking forward to getting back out there.”

Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday leads the Pac-12 in passing offense — he has 2,318 yards on the season and a 149.7 QB rating. Most of these yards have come largely on the backs of the Cougars’ top receivers, Isiah Myers, Vince Mayle and River Cracraft, all of whom have more than 400 receiving yards on the year and average more than 10 yards per catch.

This could present a tough test for the Bears’ defense, which gave up 455 passing yards and seven passing touchdowns to Colorado. So the Cal defense will be looking to their offense, lead by quarterback Jared Goff and his talented receiving corps.

Goff has thrown the ball fewer times than his WSU counterpart — he’s 80 for 128 — but his QB rating of 190.1 is much higher. And while Cal doesn’t have a single receiver with more than 400 yards, the Bears have six receivers with more than 150 yards. Combine that with the Bears’ strong running game, and Cal’s “Bear raid” offense looks like it’s living up to its full potential.

Running back Daniel Lasco is averaging 6.3 yards a carry on the season and two touchdowns. He’s helped by Khalfani Muhammad, who is rushing for an average of 4.7 yards per carry and has four touchdowns thus far. These two have helped the Bears become the 63rd-best rushing offense in the country, while the Cougars sit near the bottom of the group at 125.

As a result, the Bears might be able to focus more on the Cougars’ passing game, allowing more opportunities for turnovers in the secondary. Cal safety Griffin Piatt already has three interceptions on the year, good enough to tie for the lead in the Pac-12, and leads the Pac-12 with six passes defended. Against Colorado, linebacker Jake Kearney had his first career interception.

And while interceptions are important, the Bears need to figure out a way to get pressure on Halliday early and force him to make mistakes. The defensive line has been a bit of a disappointment this season, only having eight sacks on the year. The Bears’ defense is currently No. 113 in total defense.

“(The Cougars) throw the ball to everybody,” said defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. “So each person has to defend his part of the field or his one of 11.”

The Cougars don’t have much of a standout defense, but they’ve held opposing Pac-12 opponents to 32.5 points, including only allowing 38 points to No. 2 Oregon.

“They have some pass rushers that can come off the edge and create some problems,” Dykes said. “They blitz a lot, they move a lot with their line … They showed that they’re physical, they’re big, they get up the field well, they push the pass protection well, and they’ve got enough speed coming of the edge where they can create a lot of problems for you.”

Shannon Carroll covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @scarroll43.