For nearly four years, Cal fans have enjoyed all the benefits of running a Bear Raid™ offense. Now, for the first time in the Sonny Dykes era, they’ll have to face a similar scheme operating at full strength. Will the lessons they’ve learned in blue-on-gold games help prepare them to defend an air raid attack?
Mike Leach has reinvigorated the Cougars, turning a young but talented team into, well, an experienced and talented team that turned a laughable 0-2 start into a legitimate run for the Pac-12 conference title. After winning nine games in 2015, this year’s Cougs are undefeated in conference, though they have a difficult remaining path that goes through Cal, Colorado, and Washington.
So what happens when Cal gets a taste of its own medicine? Can they withstand Washington State’s strategy of death by a thousand short passes? (Mike Leach stays true to his philosophy, passing on 63% of plays. For comparison, Sonny calls roughly 60% passes.) Cal fans know better than anyone what an air raid scheme can do when its playmakers can get the ball in space. This is an offense that is designed to spread the field, win individual matchups, and score a lot of points, things that Cal’s defense has had difficulty stopping thus far. And now that the Cougars have a slate of talented and experienced playmakers, they can make things extremely difficult.
Luke Falk has had an excellent junior season, establishing himself as one of the nation’s top statistical QBs. He’s completing 74% of his passes and owns a Jake Browning-esque 28/5 TD to INT ratio. Remarkably, he ranks second in the country when it comes to passing yards per game. Of course, much like Davis Webb’s numbers, those stats are somewhat inflated by the sheer number of pass attempts Mike Leach asks him to make (He’s third nationally in passing attempts after Webb and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes). Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Falk has evolved into a very accurate passer and has done an admirable job of spreading the ball around to his receivers.
There are a few things, however, that Falk is not known for. He’s not a significant rushing threat, logging a pedestrian 92 yards on 24 attempts. And though the offensive line has been much improved, he’s still been vulnerable to the pass rush, getting sacked 23 times this season. Further, he hasn’t been much of a deep ball threat. Leach much prefers short to medium passes; while Cal feasts on the big play, Washington State is a bottom-half team in terms of plays longer than 20 or 30 yards.
The Cougars (in yet another similarity to Cal, pre-Vic Enwere injury), rely on a trio of complementary running backs. On the rare occasion that WSU does run the ball, attempts are split equally between freshman James Williams and juniors Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks. Morrow is the biggest dual threat of the bunch, rushing for 6.1 yards per carry while also collecting upwards of 10 yards per catch. Wicks, the biggest RB of the group at 6’0” and 227 lbs, has been the short yardage guy, racking up a team-leading 10 rushing touchdowns. Finally, the freshman Williams has broken out as an explosive young back, leading the team in yardage and yards per carry.
Ten Cougars have double digit catches this season and nine have scored at least one touchdown. We’ll focus on their top three, a crew that has driven this Cougar offense and provided a reliable outlet for Luke Falk. Starting at Z is senior Gabe Marks, team leader in targets, catches, yards, and touchdowns. His classmate, River Cracraft, is close behind in all those categories. He represents the team’s biggest deep threat, averaging over 14 yards per catch. Together, the two are the first set of teammates in conference history with 200+ career catches.
Joining the starters is sophomore Tavares Martin Jr., the 6’1” wideout who has inserted himself as Falk’s second favorite target. The most notable trait of this crew is their sure-handedness; every single WSU receiver (save Cracraft, who misses the mark by just a hair) has caught over 70 percent of their targets. That’s what makes this unit so dangerous; they may not make many breakout plays, but they rarely fail to convert when called on.
The Cougars have benefitted enormously from consistency along the offensive line. After replacing two major contributors this offseason, the new starting five has made all but one start in 2016. The four-upperclassman crew has excelled especially in run blocking, ranking in the top 10 nationally for stuff rate and power success. Pass blocking has been less of a strength, resulting in the aforementioned 23 sacks, but some of that may again be attributable to Falk’s astounding 455 pass attempts. It should be noted that this unit isn’t particularly deep, with the backups at every position but right tackle being relatively unproven freshmen.
In some ways, the Cougars present a favorable matchup for Cal’s defense. They run a familiar system that tends to shy away from the rushing game. At the same time, this offense averages nearly 80 plays per game, a number that will stretch the limits of Cal’s decimated defense. Unless Mike Leach deviates from his scheme (he has threatened to run the ball 100% of the time), this game will come down to Cal’s pass defense keeping the Cougs in front of them. That hasn’t come easy in recent weeks.