Trading its festive home atmosphere for a pulse of deafening jeers, Cal football is back on the road. Venturing north to the rolling hills of Pullman, the Bears will take on the savvy 3-1 Cougars program in an arduous week-five brawl.
Although the two teams boast parallel records on paper, the blue and gold face an undoubtedly demanding assignment in repressing WSU’s explosive offensive aptitude and NFL-caliber talent.
Collecting nonconference wins over Idaho, No. 19 Wisconsin and Colorado State, the Cougars launched their 2022 campaign on an impressive note.
Rightfully garnering national recognition, WSU’s defensive front has put forth top-notch disruption — leading the country with 38 tackles for loss and slated second in the Pac-12 with 14 sacks in its first four matchups. Reminiscent of WSU’s celebrated 1994 defensive unit, dubbed the “Palouse Posse,” the contemporary Cougar defense is principled on velocity, displaying speed on the pass rush and perpetual hounding of the ball-carriers. Spearheaded by veteran linebacker Daiyan Henley, who has amassed 8.5 tackles for loss on the season, WSU’s defensive corps is a force to be reckoned with … but just certainly not in the fourth quarter against Oregon. Yikes.
A Cougar defense that has allowed just 38 points in its opening three victories saw its defensive line splinter in the final minutes of week four, conceding 22 unanswered points in a three-minute span.
The result: a demoralizing 41-44 defeat.
Surely, the WSU will enter the gridiron Saturday afternoon eager to amend its previous last-minute faltering.
As for the Bears, their offensive agenda will adhere to their obvious strength — the running game. The designated go-to guy for the blue and gold, running back Jaydn Ott is settling in as a prolific threat for Cal, rushing for 274 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries during Saturday’s homecoming win. Met with Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors, Ott now leads the conference with 463 rushing yards and an average of 8.3 yards per rush.
Head coach Justin Wilcox praised his standout freshman’s performance, insinuating the magnification of his role looking forward.
“Jaydn has earned the right to touch the ball. He has done a great job and has some unique abilities. We want to make sure we take advantage of those,” Wilcox said.
Further propounding the eminence of Ott’s contributions, Cal’s prowess in the running game produces a finer play-action game, in which quarterback Jack Plummer can operate in clean, nuanced pictures and solid pockets.
This overall recent offensive success has come with the efficiency of a reformulated offensive line. Steered by Pac-12 Offensive Lineman of the Week, redshirt junior Ben Coleman, the offensive line was shifted around prior to the Arizona matchup, with four players in different positions.
Nonetheless, the core displayed great versatility and physicality in the adjustment, creating gaps for offensive opportunity.
“We know that we control the game, and we felt that this week. We were able to run the ball, so it does not matter what goes on around us, we control the game and the line of scrimmage,” Coleman said.
Satisfied with the results, Cal’s coaching staff will proceed with this revised positioning against Washington State. Fans of the blue and gold are hopeful the offensive can churn out a dignified performance, because the Cal defense will certainly have its hands full.
WSU offensive coordinator Eric Morris runs an Air Raid scheme, with four to five receivers on the field, that highlights the exceptional talents of transfer quarterback Cameron Ward.
Leading the Pac-12 with 104 completions and second in the Pac-12 with 10 touchdowns on the season, the sophomore play-caller is already drawing comparisons to the quick and accurate decision-making of NFL quarterback Kyler Murray. A natural athlete with poise and steady balance — Ward can not only punish downfield by connecting to receivers with strength and precision, but also float well in the pocket and create his own yardage.
“He makes great, quick decisions, has a very very live arm, he is a fun guy to watch and a really tough guy to prepare for,” said defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon.
Thus, while WSU will look to spread the defense finding open receivers on quick slants and screen passes, Cal’s defense must remain attentive to Ward’s unique improvisation abilities, as he can throw off-balance on the run. The Bears’ defense must generate relentless pressure on Ward, forcing him into ill-advised lobs before he applies his shifty movement to penalize the secondary coverage.
If Cal hopes to notch 2-0 in Pac-12 play, defensive pressure will need to transcend immensely to rattle the high-IQ instincts of an NFL-caliber quarterback. The challenge is assuredly great, but an energetic and communicative defensive effort could propel the Bears to a favorable scenario on the Palouse.