WSU shootaround: What will it take for the Bears to bring down the Cougars?

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Out of all the injured student-athletes on Cal football, who do you think would be the most valuable addition to return from the week-to-week injury report Saturday?

Shailin Singh: Many people seem to forget that Kekoa Crawford, while healthy, was Cal’s leading receiver. He has the best combination of speed, size and skill on the team and was Garbers’ favorite target before his nagging injury came about. While his chemistry with Devon Modster remains to be seen, his return would undoubtedly benefit the offense, especially with the rest of the receivers group being quite banged up at the moment.

Emily Ohman: Can I say the entire offensive line? Save for Jake Curhan, who has started 32 consecutive games, there’s hardly a veteran on the line of scrimmage when the offense takes the field. The offensive line is in shambles and riddled with injuries, and both Modster and Spencer Brasch have suffered from less time in the pocket. Without a solid offensive line, producing any plays is difficult with quarterbacks who are just as new to Cal football as those lined up in front of them. If the man under center had just a bit more time in the pocket — Modster especially, who is privy to deep balls — plays with depth and variability could develop with more ease. 

Josh Yuen: For me, it’s Michael Saffell followed closely by Kekoa Crawford. While Cal quarterbacks have come under a ton of fire throughout the past several weeks, it’s been difficult to operate as a whole with an offensive line that’s young and learning on the fly. I anticipate that Saffell and McKade Mettauer will both be ready to go Saturday, allowing Matthew Cindric to slide back to the guard position and providing some more stability for Spencer Brasch. On another note, ever since Crawford found himself banged up, the team’s receiving production has been dismal, so just having him on the field would be a huge plus as well. 

 

Who’s going to have a better game Saturday: Washington State’s offense or Cal’s defense? 

SS: It’s going to be tough to stop Mike Leach’s offense. Oregon, which fields one of the best defenses in the country, allowed just 35 points to the Cougars, who were quite close to securing the win. Cal’s defensive success is highly dependent on how well its offense moves the ball and retains possession, neither of which have been good since week four. While I do expect a bounceback performance after the Utah game, I fully expect the Cal defense to allow at least 25 points Sunday. I’m going to give this one to Washington State’s offense.

EO: Cal’s defense. These guys are itching for a win, and I don’t anticipate that they wasted the bye week like they did last time preceding the Oregon State game. I think Evan Weaver will have another 20-plus tackle game and that Kuony Deng will be close behind. Washington State’s offense thrives on the passing game and likes to put points on the board, but the combination of the Bears’ established secondary with its strong defensive line will hopefully allow Cal to tie the Cougars’ paws behind their backs. 

JY: I’ll go with the Cal defense. Wazzu’s offense is a handful and gave Oregon’s top-5 defense plenty to deal with two weeks ago when the Cougars last played. But I’m optimistic that this is the game when the Bears’ secondary reasserts itself as one of the top units in the conference. Mike Leach will throw the ball on roughly 75% to 80% of plays, and Cal’s defensive backs know it’s coming. I don’t know if it will be enough for the Bears to win the game, but I envision at least a couple of takeaways on Saturday evening. 

 

Regardless of who starts under center for the Bears, what’s the biggest thing you want to see from them off of a bye week? 

SS: To be quite honest, one of the biggest issues for the Bears right now is health. While Wilcox is understandably vague when describing the extent of his players’ injuries, there are many vital players who are nearing returns. Having receivers like Crawford and Nikko Remigio would be a major boost to the offense’s ability to throw downfield, while having Saffell back would be instrumental in both pass protection and getting the run game back on track.

EO: All I want to see is individual strengths being played to. If Modster turns out to be the man, I’m expecting deep routes for him to hit and for wide receiver Jordan Duncan and running back Christopher Brown Jr. to use their wheels and talent to complete those passes. If Brasch gets a second chance under center, making use of his versatility would give the Bears a leg up on a Cougars defense that has been gifted a blueprint for beating Cal’s offense thanks to its losses to Oregon State and Utah earlier in the season. The key to both of these, of course, is offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin exercising flexibility and recognizing that both of these quarterbacks have different strengths. Trying to play either of them like Garbers isn’t going to fly — the last four games have proven as much. 

JY: Decisiveness. Guess right, guess wrong, but be decisive. The Cougars’ secondary hasn’t played as well as many hoped, and that side of the ball has been in flux after their defensive coordinator stepped down early last month. If there was ever a time for Modster or Brasch to let loose, it’s now. It’s worth noting that Garbers is ramping up his rehabilitation from the upper-body injury he sustained in late September, but don’t expect any Willis Reed impersonations just yet, at least not this weekend. 

 

If there’s one thing Cal needs to do to snap its four-game losing skid, what is it and why? 

SS: Baldwin and the offense need to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands as fast as possible. With the injuries to the offensive line, it is clear that there is not much time in the pocket, yet there are many occasions in which Modster or Brasch just sat in the pocket and took sack after sack. Some of these are on the quarterbacks for not throwing the ball away, but the bulk of Baldwin’s play designs take far too long to develop, which is unacceptable given the injuries across the board. If Cal has to dink and dunk its way down the field, so be it. But having the quarterbacks take so many hits will only lead to more sacks, more punts and more injuries.

EO: Utilize the running backs. If Cal can get the ball into the hands of any of the receivers, they have a better chance of making plays and ultimately scoring than they do leaving the rock with whoever plays quarterback. Washington State’s defense is its biggest weakness, and alternating between running the ball and passing downfield should give the Bears significantly more chances at scoring than leaving the ball with the quarterback to be sacked or running it out of bounds on every down. 

JY: Gain solid chunks on first down. Not every play has to be a home run, but I think getting the ball out quick and finding a solid balance between the run and pass will go a long way against the Cougars’ defense. The Bears have been backed up quite a bit on second and third down over their past four games, which won’t get the job done when the margin for error is razor-thin against Pac-12 competition. 

Shailin Singh, Emily Ohman and Josh Yuen are the 2019 football beat writers.

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