Cal football tries to get back on track vs. No. 23 Washington State

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With yet another matchup against a top-25 foe coming up and two wins needed in its next — and last — three games to ensure bowl eligibility, things aren’t looking very good for the Cal football team.

The Bears will head to Pullman to face No. 23 Washington State (7-2), which comes in hot, having won seven games in a row, including a 69-7 shellacking of Arizona last week. Cal will be looking for its sixth straight win against the Cougars, and it couldn’t come at a more important time.

“(Their) guys are really playing well right now,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “Playing with a lot of confidence on both sides of the ball.”

The Dykes-led Bears’ only win away from Memorial Stadium this season was in the season-opener against Hawaii, and now the ball coach will reunite with his former boss, the ever-quotable Mike Leach, and look to eke out another win to get back to .500.

It’s not hard to imagine Leach and Dykes working together — their offenses remain nearly identical to this day, with the Cougars incorporating a slightly higher percentage of run plays simply because of the large leads they’ve entered fourth quarters with. But there’s no doubt that Washington State is reliant on the pass. More than 67 percent of the Cougars’ first down conversions have come through the passing game.

The engine behind their aerial attack is quarterback Luke Falk. Falk entered the season as a dark horse candidate for the Heisman trophy, and though a loss to Eastern Washington probably dashed those hopes, his production has been anything but disappointing. The signal caller is one of two quarterbacks in the nation to have thrown for more yards than Cal quarterback Davis Webb. Falk has 3,237 passing yards and 28 touchdowns while completing an astounding 74.1 percent of his passes.

That 74.1 is nearly 3 percent better than anyone in the country and, while a function of the Cougars’ preference for short passes — Falk has recorded a less eye-opening 7.5 yards per attempt — is still impressive.

“I can’t say enough good things about what Luke Falk is doing,” Dykes said. “(He’s) completing passes and moving their football team.”

Given the Cal defense’s inability to get off the field at points this season, going up against a quarterback as accurate and likely to move the chains as Falk could be a huge problem. The Bears have given up more first downs on defense than their prolific offense has been able to record, and that’s a problem that can definitely continue Saturday.

Once again, pressure falls on Webb and the offense to put enough points to get past the defense’s shortcomings. But for the first time in a while, though, the Cougars seem well-equipped to slow the Bears down.

This isn’t the Washington State team that gave up 60 points in a one-point loss to Cal two seasons ago. The Cougars have held opponents to a respectable 24.7 points per game in 2016.

They’ll be especially hard to score on if the Bears continue to falter on third down like they did in their 39-point loss at home to Washington last week. Cal converted on only one of 14 third downs and struggled after failing to gain meaningful yardage on first and second downs.

“I think we just got beat up one on one,” Webb said. “I think it’s just across the board offensively. It starts with the quarterback and we look forward to being better on third down this week.”

While it may be helpful for the Bears to focus on running the ball and keeping the Cougars off balance on early downs, that seems unrealistic given Cal’s offensive makeup thus far this season. If the passing game isn’t operating at its best, the Bears could find themselves right on the brink of a losing season.

“We have our hands full. Washington State is going to be a great opponent for us,” Webb said.

Hooman Yazdanian covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian