When the Bears take the field Friday against No. 8 Washington State, the team will likely be battling far more than the Cougars’ high-flying offense and pressuring defense. Because of the ongoing Napa Valley fires and resulting smoke, the entire Bay Area, especially the East Bay, is experiencing the worst air quality in recorded history.
Cal head coach Justin Wilcox and his team will be put at an elevated risk of respiratory issues, on top of likely getting blown out for the third straight week — this time at home.
Washington State is a beast. It may just be the best team Cal plays all year. Oregon and USC beat the Bears by a combined score of 31 points, and the Cougars have beaten those teams by a combined 26.
Quarterback Luke Falk is one of the very best signal-callers in the nation. The all-time Pac-12 leader in completions, Falk currently ranks fourth on ESPN’s “Heisman Watch.” The senior has thrown for 2,000 yards and NCAA-best 19 touchdowns this year, against only two interceptions and on nearly 72 percent completion, and he efficiently leads one of the best offenses in the nation with a style very familiar to the Cal faithful — the air raid.
Wazzu head coach Mike Leach is an excellent disciple of the long-tossing method, and he is currently running it better than Cal’s former skipper Sonny Dykes ever could. The offense is perfectly catered to Falk’s strengths and is highly advanced, even relative to the hyper-progressive college game. Every skill position player is an immediate threat, with seven different players hauling in a touchdown this year. The two lead halfbacks, James Williams and Jamal Morrow, are used almost equally in the passing game as they are in the run attack. The two have combined for 95 carries and three rushing touchdowns, in addition to 64 receptions and eight scores through the air.
The Bears, on the other hand, have been playing offense with one arm tied behind their back. Wide receiver Demetris Robertson’s absence has been devastating, and heaped onto that has been a rotating cast of injured skill players that have prevented quarterback Ross Bowers from finding any sort of consistent rhythm in the passing game. The 80-yard, zero-touchdown, eight-sack outing he had in Seattle last week was a long time coming, and it’s hard to predict a drastically different outcome against a Cougar defense that is becoming one of the very best in the country.
After years of horrid defensive metrics, Wazzu has racked up the fourth-most sacks in the nation this season and held the then-best-scoring offense in Oregon to just 10 points at home. If the Bears’ struggles on offense don’t somehow convert to strengths — and quickly — they likely won’t even get to seven.
But don’t let any of this take away from the fact that this game should 100 percent not be played. As Lisa Fasano of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said Wednesday, “We’re seeing elevated levels of particulate matter that are higher than we’ve ever seen since we began measuring that in 2000.”
“This is not the kind of thing that you want to have people out running and breathing in,” she said. “It’s very hazardous.”
On Thursday, particle pollution in the area registered 14 times the level that the government deems safe. Yet, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox and the Pac-12 don’t think the game will be affected.
The Bears showed no growth from their Oregon game to Washington, and on a short week of practice, it would be hugely surprising to see enough of an improvement to make this game competitive. And with Berkeley resembling a nuclear winter, it looks like this contest, for reasons much bigger than the talent differential on the field, will not be pretty.