The 2015 Washington State Cougars would have what could be described as their coming out party under head coach Mike Leach. They looked the part of a dangerous contender in the Pac-12, overcoming a sluggish start to the season to lose only 4 games. And how disappointing those losses were for the Cougars. A devastating loss in their season opener to FCS Portland State, a narrow loss to an opportunistic Cal team, what would have been a victory over then #8 Stanford with a missed field goal as time expired, and a loss to rival Washington without star QB Luke Falk. Needless to say, the 2015 WSU team shattered expectations. Let's break down their season, and what this win meant for Cal.
The Cougars offense was a tale of two extremes as they would throw on a whopping 71.5% of plays and run on only 28.5% of plays. One would think that it would be a bad thing to have such an unbalanced approach, right? Wrong.
Behind standout RS sophomore QB Luke Falk, WSU would lead the FBS in passing offense with an average of 389.5 yards per game. The passing attack would provide the impetus for the 25th ranked total offense that would average 469.6 yards per game and 31.5 points per game. The Cougars QBs would also achieve a sterling 67.8% completion percentage, throwing to a balanced receiving corp led by WR Gabe Marks and WR Dom Williams who would each average upwards of 80.0 yards per game. Though the Cougars would rank last in the FBS in rushing offense with only 80.1 yards per game, that could be attributed to their offensive philosophy as leading rusher Gerard Wicks would average a prolific 5.7 yards per carry.
Perhaps the true weaknesses of this team were ball protection and pass protection as they would surrender 12 interceptions and 13 fumbles lost in addition to an average of 3.15 sacks per game. However, they would make up for their weaknesses with an elite conversion rate in the red zone. They would score on 94.5% of their trips into the red zone with touchdowns scored on 64.5% of trips. The 2015 WSU offense was a well-oiled machine that should continue to roll in 2016 as Falk, Marks, and Wicks all return with another year of experience under their belts.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Cougars were by no means a dominant group, but they played well enough to give their team a chance to win. Though they allowed opponents to convert on 44.5% of third downs and surrendered a hefty 416.2 yards per game, primarily as a result of a poor rush defense that allowed 192.5 yards per game and 4.92 yards per carry, they were able to limit opposing teams to 27.7 points per game.
How did they achieve that? By being adept at forcing turnovers. They would force 24 turnovers on the season, aided by their ability to apply pressure to opposing offenses with an average of 2.54 sacks per game and a stellar 7.8 tackles for loss per game. The Cougars were also able to come up with stops in the red zone, allowing opponents to score on only 81.5% of trips into the red zone with touchdowns only 57.4% of their trips.
Though the Cougars have to replace 5 starters on defense, they return 16 of 22 players from their two-deeps. With that much depth returning and another year of experience under their belts, I expect WSU's defense to perform at the same level, if not better, next season.
The WSU special teams units were a middling group for the most part. Kicker Erik Powell would convert 76.9% of his field goal attempts and would have 3 kicks blocked on the season. However, the Cougars would counter with 3 blocks of their own. Where they truly struggled was on the punt team as they would net only 32.9 yards per punt and allow a massive 14.43 yards per punt return with 2 returned for TDs. Though their special teams play was unspectacular, the only true weakness was the punt team. If punter Zach Charme is able to improve upon his freshman season, the special teams unit should develop into a solid all-around group next season.
Cal was able to squeak out a victory over a resurgent, explosive Washington State Cougars team. The Cal defense and special teams would come through with four turnovers, seven sacks, a fumbled fake punt, and a recovered onside kick. That was just the big plays on defense and special teams.
The offense would also come through with big plays of their own including a 42-yard run from Vic Enwere on third-and-36 to extend the drive and help take an additional two plus minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter. Without the clutch plays and gutsy play calling, the game likely may have resulted in a loss for the Golden Bears. However, that was not the case as they were able to come through on both sides of the ball.
Next year could be a completely different story though. WSU retains so many key players and depth on both sides of the ball next year, while Cal will replace star QB Jared Goff, all of their WRs, and much of the depth on the defensive line. If Cal can find adequate replacements for their departing players and the returners on defense can build upon an improved effort this season, then I believe that we will have an exciting game on our hands on Nov. 12th in Pullman.