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Washington State Defensive Preview

Get ready for the spookiest game of the season!

Washington State v Oregon Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Which is scarier: playing a Pac-12 After Dark game on Friday the 13th in October or Hercules Mata’afa? Both. Unless you happen to be ESPN, in which case playing a game while the rest of the country is asleep is a blessing direct from God that is bestowed upon only the greatest of competitors. Let’s take a look at the Washington State defense!

2017 Defensive Highlights (To-Date)

Previous Opponents: Montana St. (31-0), Boise St. (47-44), Oregon St. (52-23), Nevada (45-7), U$C (30-27), Oregon (33-10)

Total Yards Allowed: 1,653 (878 pass, 775 rush)

Interceptions: 8 (62 yards)

Sacks By: 21 (131 yards)

Opponent 3rd Down Conversions: 20-81 (25%)

I’m not going to sugarcoat this analysis - we do not matchup well against Wazzu’s defense. Powered by the titanic efforts of defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa (19 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks), Alex Grinch’s defense at Washington State has been effective in stopping opponents in the backfield. With the Bears’ offense continuing to struggle to move the ball efficiently downfield, facing a defense with 49 total TFL’s and 21 sacks is admittedly ominous.

In watching their highlights against U$C, the Cougs are quick. Their defense is able to leverage that speed to swarm the ball, holding opposing offenses to a respectable 4.5 yards per play. However, therein lies their potential downfall. Wazzu has been willing to give up the short yardage plays as long as they prevent the explosive high-yardage gains. If Cal can generate several high play-count marches down towards the opposing end zone resulting in a majority of touchdowns, we have a chance.

Ah, but we still must remember to strive for first downs. Adding on top to the tackles for loss is the opponents 3rd down conversion ratio (25%). The Bears have ranked near the bottom of the conference this season in 3rd down efficiency, which makes this somewhat of a nightmare matchup. Though, I have always been wary of this particular stat, since I feel it is skewed by individual game factors (i.e. defensive scoring, quick strings of 1st downs, low possession times, etc.) and may not represent seasonal trends. But with a fairly significant data set to work with at this point in the year, holding opponents to only 25% on 3rd down is noteworthy.

As far as additional potential impact players, be on the lookout for linebacker Frankie Luvu (6’3, 235) and safety Hunter Dale (5’10, 190) who had a top-shelf game against the Trojans in Pullman. Washington State rolls deep this year defensively, so any number of players could be a thorn in our side.

Keys to Cal’s Success

If the Bears are going to shock the college football world and pull out a win against a top-10 opponent like Washington State, the offense will need to steal yardage. With the losses of Demetris Robertson and Tre Watson, Cal will need to milk every yard out of every skilled position on that offensive roster. Distribute, stay unpredictable, and utilize players’ inherent athleticism.

However, effective offenses are directly derived from a functioning O-Line. I cannot say I have the key to solving our OL woes, but I do know something needs to improve over the past few outings if we are to stay in this game. The Cougars’ defensive line has pestered quarterbacks all season, and I don’t see the Bears’ line improving drastically by Friday. So Bowers (or whoever ends up leading the offense) will need to get the ball quickly out of his hands to a set a hands ready to catch the ball (it is frustrating that I need to state that point). Mata’afa is clearly a talent that few offensive lines in the country would be able to contain, so pushing the offense away from him may give the Cal backs just enough time and momentum to make a play.

Final Thoughts

The odds are clearly stacked against us. But it’s when teams are backed into a corner that they can truly pull off something unexpected. Last week’s performance in Seattle was frustrating to sit through, so I’m sure it was even more frustrating for the players to have experienced. The spirit of the Bears, however, is undying.

If Wilcox can convince this team that they can execute this upset (which I believe they are certainly capable of doing), then we will have quite an interesting game awaiting us. If I’ve learned anything this week, it’s that if Trinidad and Tobago can eliminate the United States (along with embarrassingly poor play from the American side) from the World Cup for the first time in 30 years, then the Bears can win this game. Cue theme from Chariots of Fire

What are your thoughts? Can the Bears take down the Cougars in Berkeley?