Update 12/10/20: This article has been updated to reflect a new kickoff time.
Grab your scarves, put on your hats and throw on at least one extra layer this weekend. Cal (1-3) is playing Washington State (1-2) in Pullman.
Temperatures will rise to a rosy 34 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday and rest at perhaps a comfortable 30 degrees when the Cougars kick off against the Bears at 1:00 p.m. for a Pac-12 below-freezing matchup.
The cold is just another obstacle, though — just another part of the two teams’ penultimate Pac-12 game.
In the words of head coach Justin Wilcox, “Mid-thirties would be beautiful. We’ll maybe bring some long sleeves, potentially, maybe an extra pair of socks.”
Both Cal and Washington State will hope those extra socks smell like victory as they find themselves in a similar place: the bottom of the Pac-12 North. Each team has faced COVID-19-induced cancellations, which have hampered this season, and each must win to have a chance at reaching the promised land of college football: bowl eligibility.
While it is unclear if a 0.500-record is enough to claim a postseason game, Wilcox said his squad is focused on now rather than next week. It is indisputable that a loss on Saturday would consign either the Cougars and Bears to a losing record and a prospect both teams surely hope to avoid.
Second wins of the season will be sought by a home team and visiting team on seemingly opposite trajectories. After losing three straight to open the season, the blue and gold shocked then-No. 23 Oregon at home in a 21-17 nail-biter. WSU, meanwhile, has lost its last two games and faced a two-week layoff due to COVID-19. Last week, the Cougars struggled against a ranked USC team, losing 38-13 in Los Angeles.
Washington State played its worst game against the Trojans, turning the ball over three times and giving up 28 points in the first quarter alone. Quarterback Jayden de Laura, who was in fine form to start the season, threw for just 134 yards. The true freshman had averaged twice that on a per-game basis before his trip to Southern California, but pressure from USC created three sacks and two interceptions as de Laura struggled to find his usual targets in the slot.
Cal will still play with a healthy amount of respect for de Laura and will need to exert the same type of pressure to beat Washington State. That starts with the defensive line and senior outside linebacker Cameron Goode, who had a monster game against Oregon in which he registered 3.5 tackles for a loss.
“That freshman quarterback is a playmaker,” Wilcox said. “He can make throws down the field, unscheduled. When things get hairy he can run for it. He’s a good football player.”
The blue and gold secondary must limit de Laura and the Cougars receiving corps on the short plays they usually feast upon. Redshirt senior Josh Drayden, who sees plenty of time at nickel back for the Bears, must take away any options in the slot. If Cal can take away the middle of the field, de Laura could struggle yet again.
The wild card is the Cougars’ run game. Max Borghi, WSU’s preseason All-Pac-12 first-team running back, could make his long-awaited debut this season if he returns from injury.
Linebacker Kuony Deng, who forced two critical fourth-quarter fumbles against the Ducks, will prepare for a tough tailback regardless of Borghi’s condition, though. Senior Deon McIntosh has averaged more than 100 rushing yards a game. Despite his declining numbers across his last two performances, McIntosh has stepped in as the centerpiece of a Washington State offense, which is more run-happy this season than its air raid predecessors.
Cal’s offense will seek to improve on its performance against Oregon, which was just enough. Quarterback Chase Garbers and the running back trio of Christopher Brown Jr., Marcel Dancy and Damien Moore have each had their moments, but none have been able to string together consistent play.
Garbers will have a chance to target both the outside and middle of the field against the Cougars’ secondary, which will be the weakest unit Cal has challenged this season. The reemergence of Nikko Remigio against the Ducks could be the shot of physicality that the Bears need to get the job done.
The Bears’ running backs will have their work cut out for them, though. After a season-best performance against Stanford, Cal managed only 88 yards on the ground against Oregon. The blue and gold must try to better that mark against a Cougars team that ranked second in rushing defense in the Pac-12 and held the Trojans to just five total yards on the ground.
In a season shortened by COVID-19, each game becomes that much more meaningful. Even against struggling opponents, wins are still wins. Neither Cal nor Washington State wants to finish on the bottom of the pile, and both teams will bring all the guts, gusto and extra shirts and socks they have to walk out of a frozen Pullman with a win.
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football. Contact him at [email protected].