Cal to host Washington State as both aim to keep bowl hopes alive

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Coming into the season boasting a defense littered with experience, combined with an offense that seemingly had nowhere to go but up, Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox was predicted to field a team that would be among the Pac-12’s fiercest. 

After starting 4-0 and checking all of those boxes, saying the team has fallen flat on its face would be an understatement. In the midst of a four-game losing streak, the Bears’ chances of making a bowl game are anything but guaranteed now.

While Cal has essentially finished off its slate of facing elite defenses, the Bears will welcome a team that is dominant on the other side of the ball in Washington State. Although the Cougars’ .500 record matches that of the Bears’, the former has clearly been playing better as of late.

Despite the end result, Washington State is arguably coming off its best game of the season, pushing now-No. 7 Oregon to the limit before the green and yellow were saved by quarterback Justin Herbert’s game-winning drive heroics, giving the Ducks a 37-35 win. 

Washington State head coach Mike Leach and the Cougars have continued a lineage of developing gunslingers, as Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon leads the nation in multiple passing categories with 3,387 yards thrown and 32 touchdowns. To put that into perspective, the Bears as a team have less than a third of the Cougars’ passing touchdowns with a measly 10 over eight games.

Cal’s secondary will likely be tested more often than ever this season, as Leach’s air raid offense generates just 16.4 % of its total yards on the ground — by far the lowest mark in the Pac-12.

“Coach Leach has a great scheme — they know how to score points,” said Cal linebacker Evan Weaver. “They pass the ball a bunch but they also know when to run it. It’s all about making tackles in space and not letting yourself miss.”

To aid the stout unit lead by safety Ashtyn Davis, the Bears’ front seven must put pressure on the quarterback, which has been a struggle as of late. Cal only had a single sack against now-No. 8 Utah, which came off a cornerback blitz. The Bears will need to lean on outside linebacker Cameron Goode to rush Gordon off the edge, while interior lineman Luc Bequette will attempt to disrupt the pocket from the inside.

“We got out physicaled, we got outran, we didn’t tackle well at all,” Wilcox said of the Cal defense in the loss to Utah. “It was a combination of things. It wasn’t one thing.”

After allowing a season-high 35 points to the Utes, Cal’s defense is eyeing a rebound performance, but if the unit is forced to be on the field for too much of the game, legs will tire quickly.

That’s where Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin comes into play, and he desperately needs to find some way to generate points for an offense that currently ranks 121st out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring offense with an embarrassing 17.4 per game. With recovering quarterback Chase Garbers at the helm, Cal’s offense was adequate, and at some points, even dangerous.

But those days are long gone — the Bears have dropped all four games since his injury, and the offense is just as bad as its atrocious 2018 season. 

Quarterback Devon Modster is expected to return from injury to compete for the start with freshman Spencer Brasch, but the team is still dealing with a banged up receiving core and offensive line. The return of center Michael Saffell would help the team tremendously if he is able to go against Washington State, but at a certain point, Baldwin must find a way to execute with the players he has available.

“Nothing to sugar coat, it hasn’t been up to our standards,” said tackle Jake Curhan of the offensive line’s performance over the past few weeks. “We know we can win every game — that’s what we are focused on.”

The Cougars allow the third-most yards per game in the Pac-12, but as Cal fans saw against Oregon State, subpar defensive teams still find ways to strangle and suffocate Baldwin’s offense.

It’s now do or die for the Bears. What began as one of the most exciting seasons in the program’s history is quickly crashing down, but a bowl berth could still be salvaged if the team can get back on track.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].