Roll On: Previewing The Washington State Defense

Everything I say each week appears to be the opposite of reality.  I say that Cal will score in the 20s against USC and they barely manage 9.  I see a Utah defense that has played well against every team they’ve played, including teams with better offenses than Cal, and I predict a struggle.  Cal scores 27 points on offense.  I see a horrible UCLA run defense, predict that Cal should gash them, and the Bears barely manage 4 yards a run.

I know nothing.  My job is to scour the depth charts, pour over the stats, analyze what I’ve watched so far this year, read what the smart people have to say, and then tell you what I think will happen on Saturday when Cal’s offense is on the field.

And yet I’m always wrong.

I suppose I should find that frustrating, but I long ago admitted that pretending to understand college football is just another exercise in lying to yourself.  So I’ve come to terms with making guesses each week and passing it off as ‘expert analysis.’

I’ve watched Washington State play three times this year, against Stanford, UCLA and Oregon.  Their defense did not look good at all against UCLA, but managed good first halves before surrendering to the inevitable against Stanford and Oregon.  As you will soon see, the stats don’t treat the Cougar defense kindly.  But then again, the stats don’t have friendly things to say about Cal’s offense either.  Hit the jump to learn more!

Defensive Line: Jr. R. End Travis Long ; Sr. Right Tackle Brandon Rankin ; Jr. Left Tackle Anthony Laurenzi ; Jr. L. End Lenard Williams

One important note is that Toni Pole is a big contributor as a defensive tackle but missed the Oregon game with an injury.  He might be back playing against the Bears and his ability to contribute could have an impact on Cal's ability to run up the middle.

The Cougs have picked up 12 sacks in 8 games, but six of those sacks have come from their dynamic linebackers.  Of course, last week I highlighted how little pass rush production UCLA had been getting from their defensive line and the proceeded to bother Zach Maynard most of the game.  So take it with a grain of salt.


Linebackers: So. SAM Sekope Kaufusi ; So. MIKE C.J. Mizell ; Sr. WILL Alex Hoffman-Ellis

This unit is really the strength of the defense.  Hoffman-Ellis leads the team in both tackles and tackles for loss, an indication that he’ll get all over the field and can shed blocks.  Based on the production levels I don’t get the sense that there’s much depth, or that the starters come off the field much.  The three main linebacker backups have only collected 28 total tackles on the season, about 1/5 of the total collected by the starters.

I’d suggest wearing them down, but even Oregon struggled to do that so I wouldn’t anticipate Cal pulling it off.

Secondary: Jr. RCB Daniel Simmons ; So. SS Deone Bucannon ; Jr. FS Tyree Toomer ; So. LCB Damante Horton
.
When Washington State goes nickel you’ll probably see Casey Locker come in to the game.

Horton and Bucannon have four and three picks respectively.  The fact that a safety has three interceptions seems like a horrible omen.  Still, despite the interceptions this isn't a secondary that has had any kind of sustained success this year.  In their last four games the Cougs have faced six different QBs thanks to an injury and Chip Kelly's flights of fancy.  Five of those six quarterbacks have averaged 9.3 yards/attempt or better.  (Fun fact - that 9.3, the lowest of the five, was achieved by one Andrew Luck).

Against the run


4.37/attempt, 72nd in the nation

I think that’s actually a pretty solid number considering that A) Wazzu has already played Stanford and Oregon and B) I can’t remember the last time Washington St.’s run defense wasn’t a total sieve.  On the other hand, UCLA and Oregon State both had pretty good success running the ball, and Washington St.'s stats wouldn't look nearly as good if you take away dominating performances over FCS Idaho St. and really really bad UNLV.

At the very least Cal should be able to open up holes so that Sofele will have the chance to make linebackers miss.  His ability to do so might be the difference between a meh day and a good day.

Against the pass


8.5 yards/attempt, 111th in the nation

And that’s where things fall apart for Wazzu.  An inability to stop teams from moving the ball through the air is the reason Washington St. is in the 90s in scoring defense and yards/play defense.  True, there's no shame in getting shredded by Oregon or Stanford, but what kind of defense allows Kevin Prince to throw for more than 13 yards per attempt?!?  (ed. note: Not ours, we let him beat us with his legs!  /reaches for the open bottle of jack).

It's pretty clear this game will come down to 'which Maynard will show up?'  I think it's reasonable to say that Cal's receivers were equally open against Utah and UCLA, and will likely be similarly open against Washington St.  So will we get the quarterback who threw generally accurate, catchable balls at home against Utah, or the guy who overthrew the ball into the arms of the safety over and over against UCLA?

Stats of Dubious Predictive Value


Turnovers

13 total turnovers, 76th in the nation (8 interceptions, 5 fumbles)

That's just high enough to plant the terrifying seeds of doubt.


3rd Down

50.93 conversion rate, 114th in the nation

Almost exactly what you'd expect to see from a team with a bad secondary in a league that generally gets good quarterback play.  At least one of those explanations will still be in effect on Saturday.


Red Zone


68.97 touchdown percentage, 102nd in the nation

God would I love to see our two 6'3'' stud wide receivers punish a bad secondary in the end zone.  I don't ask for much!

Conclusions

Look, it's simple.  Isi will get his yards, but Washington State's 2011 run defense isn't Washington State's 2008 run defense.  We can't win this game just running the ball through Moala-sized holes in their defensive line.

The good news is that their pass defense is very exploitable, even by much maligned Zach Maynard.  Hopefully, back in the vaguely friendly confines of AT&T Park, Zach can rediscover is Utah mojo and just hit open receivers for short and medium gains.  We don't need deep balls on this defense.

If Zach plays like he did two weeks ago I think we win this game by 10 points or so.  If he plays like he did against UCLA we'll lose by double digits.  The likely answer is something in between, which means a tense affair that stays tight into the 4th quarter.  Washington State's late loss to UCLA might be a far comparison.

Needless to say we're in no position to complain about style points in a win.  As bad as Cal looked last week that doesn't change the fact that they are still a more talented team than Washington State, and playing at home.  This should still be a win, regardless of last week's ugliness.  Unfortunately, shoulds don't mean much these days.

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