The California Golden Bears have a Friday night game against the Washington State Cougars, one of the last two undefeated teams in the conference. This is the last of a particularly tough four-game stretch for the Bears and Cougar fans are feeling pretty confident—as evidenced by our chat with Jeff Nusser, one of the attractive, intelligent managing editors of Coug Center.
1. Which player on offense should Cal fans know about?
Jeff Nusser (JN): Well, the obvious answer here is QB Luke Falk, given that he’ll end his senior season owning every major passing record in Pac-12 history. (Sorry, Jared Goff fans.) But chances are pretty good you already know about Luke Falk. So I’ll go with one of his new receivers, Renard Bell. Bell, a redshirt freshman, is an inside receiver who is small (5-foot-8, 162 pounds), but incredibly fast and shifty. He’s seventh on the team in targets, but second in receiving yards, which means he leads the team by a mile in yards per target and yards per catch. Translated: He’s WSU’s most explosive receiver—and Cal fans probably will shake their heads as he breaks off at least one sizable catch.
2. Which player on defense should Cal fans know about?
JN: Halfway through the season, defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa is probably the frontrunner for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He’s the single most disruptive force in the conference and I’m not sure it’s actually close; he leads the Pac-12 in tackles for loss and is tied for the lead in sacks. He’s small for a defensive tackle—just 6-2/250—but he’s so quick off the ball that he is often unblockable by one lineman. Because he commands help, that frees up other players to exploit one-on-one matchups in WSU’s aggressive one-gap scheme—that’s how Mata’afa can play through an entire game without registering an actual stat, as he did against Oregon, but still have a profound impact: He was consistently in the Ducks’ backfield while everyone else piled up 11 tackles for loss and four sacks.
3. Who's one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for WSU?
JN: Sophomore safety Jalen Thompson has been incredibly steady for the Cougs. He started every game as a true freshman and while he took his lumps early on—his inexperience was a key factor in losing to Eastern Washington last year—he got better every week and now he’s a stud on the back end. Thompson has three interceptions and rarely misses a tackle when given an opportunity; it wouldn’t be a surprise if he made a play on the back end that initiated an avalanche-type sequence for the Cougs.
4. What does WSU need to do to win the game?
JN: Not screw up? That probably doesn’t sound very humble, but this team is really, really good. As long as Falk doesn’t throw some uncharacteristic interceptions, the wide receivers and/or running backs don’t put the ball on the ground, the defense doesn’t blow any coverages and/or run fits, special teams doesn’t crap itself ... then WSU should win fairly comfortably. One thing this particular group of guys has done well over the past couple of years—with seasons openers being the notable exception—is win the ones they should win.
5. What does Cal need to do to win the game?
JN: Justin Wilcox is a really smart defensive mind, so maybe he’s able to come up with something that slows down Falk and Co.; the Ducks did it last week and I’m sure there’s at least a thing or two that can be learned from that. And Beau Baldwin was the architect of that EWU win last fall, so he’s probably got some great ideas for how to attack the Coug D. But going back to the previous answer... Cal’s probably going to need to get a little luck with turnovers or special teams and take advantage of all of those slivers of opportunity.
6. How do you see the game going?
JN: I’d imagine it probably looks a lot like last weekend’s game against Oregon. The WSU offense might not score 50, but it’s effective enough to provide a comfortable margin while the defense suffocates a struggling Cal offense. Something like a two-TD margin seems about right.
7. How worried are you about another, more prominent team poaching someone like Mike Leach or Alex Grinch? I ask because this is something Cal fans often wring our hands about, given our financial situation. It would be interesting to hear the perspective of another school that is also not typically lauded as a top-tier destination.
JN: There are a lot of our fans who worry about this kind of stuff for the reason you mentioned—being a have-not means always waiting for your nice things to end. I try to remind people, though, that pretty much any school can find itself in a situation where their successful coach leaves—USC and Oregon watched Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly leave for the NFL, for example, and that set their programs back. That’s just how it goes.
That said, I’ll be completely shocked if Leach goes anywhere anytime soon. Everything in his history suggests this is precisely the kind of situation he wants to be in: He’s winning, he’s got a great coaching staff, he’s making piles of money, and the athletic director is behind him 100 percent. Pullman and Leach are really good fits for each other and he’s at a point in his life where being at WSU for the long haul makes a lot of sense. Additionally, there’s no reason at all to think the bottom is about to fall out of this thing—they’ll probably take a step back next year, but there’s enough young talent playing right now to suggest they should still be good for the foreseeable future.
With Grinch, that’s obviously a different story, but worried isn’t the right word, at least for me. He’s going to leave at some point—that’s just how this works. So when it happens, it’ll be disappointing, but it’ll be fine—mostly, I’m excited that a defensive coordinator showed that it’s possible to field a good defense with Leach as your coach and the candidate pool should be better this time around to fill that position. Coaches who recruit and develop strong coaches who then leave tend to attract good candidates. That’s how WSU has maintained a strong offensive staff despite seeing some churn as guys have left to be offensive coordinators in other places. I do hope he gets a hefty raise and sticks around for one more season in the post-Falk transition, but if I had to guess, I’d say he gets offered at least a Group of 5 head job and probably will move along.
8. We have a triumvirate of factors suggesting that this will be an interesting game: the wild recent history of Cal–Wazzu games, Friday the 13th, and Pac-12 After Dark. How nervous are you about this week's game?
JN: As you can see from above, not very. Is that bad?
9. Whom do you most want to punch in the face?
JN: Sorry guys.
Our thanks to Coug Center and Jeff Nusser for sharing some wisdom. Can’t say I’d like to punch Wilcox in the face, but I’m all for face-punching of people who overpost that gif.
How do you see the game going?
This poll is closed
Big Cal win
Close Cal win
Close WSU win
Big WSU win