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Cal Football Preseason Preview: Washington State

How will the Bears match up against the Cougs?

California v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Nothing says “spooky matchup” like a night game scheduled for Friday the 13th in October against a surging Washington State program. As the Cougars and their Zzu Cru travel to Berkeley for the Bears’ third Pac-12 North match of the season, let’s take a look at the influencing factors and matchups.

Season Context

Game Date: 10/13/2017

Previous Game: at Washington

Next Game: Arizona

This game marks the end of the early-season gauntlet for Cal. As opposed to the back-loaded schedule of 2016, where Cal went a meager 2-5 after the spectacular goal line stand against Utah on October 1st, the Bears truly have front-loaded this season. The Bears have to face, in consecutive weeks, a perennial SEC juggernaut (Ole Miss), a potential 2018 playoff team (USC), a Pac-12 North rival away (Oregon), and a 2017 playoff team away (Washington) before then hosting a highly talented Washington State squad. You would be hard pressed to find any team in the country that would seek out such a lineup of opponents so early in the season. Under a new coach and a new system, Cal is going to have to be extraordinarily resilient if they are going to perform well and prevail against Wazzu.

Defensive Matchup

Before we analyze the upcoming 2017 bout, let’s take a moment to remember the gem from 2016 against WSU in Pullman (masochism is one of the foundational tenets of Cal fandom). Last season, Luke Falk and company lit up the Bears for 654 total yards of offense for 56 points, including 400 yards in the air, 254 rushing yards, a punt return for a TD, and a fumble recovery. Additionally, the Cougs were a perfect (almost Madden-like) 7 for 7 in converting red zone situations into 6 points.

We can only go up from there, right? Implementing a new staff, a new system, and hopefully a new attitude, the Bears will need to focus on pressuring Falk in the pocket. Luke is a traditional pro-style QB who lives for the mid-range routes. By forcing him to scramble or put up deep 50/50 balls, DeRuyter’s defense may just be able to dampen Falk’s effectiveness.

It is inevitable that Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense will put up some big plays. However, by strategically diminishing the number and effect of those plays, Cal can potentially squeeze Wazzu into playing a game style with which they aren’t comfortable.

Offensive Matchup

I personally take much solace in the fact that our intrepid first-year OC Beau Baldwin handed the Cougars their first loss of the 2016 season while he was with Eastern Washington; a season marked for the Cougars with a 26-point victory over the junior university from across the Bay.

Baldwin’s offense under the yet-to-be-determined quarterback Ross Bowers will need to be efficient and possessive. In the 2016 game in Pullman, the Bears were only able to convert a dismal 4 of 14 3rd down situations, giving the ball back much too easily to the potent Wazzu offense. They also let the Cougars possess the football nearly 7:30 more, overworking a dogged defense that was already struggling with morale issues and season-long criticism.

Last season’s issues with conversions and possession time can be remedied through a more balanced offensive effort (which was not Dykes’ strong-suit). By feeding Watson and Enwere more often, the pressure on the untested QB is lessened. This theoretically leads to decreased 3rd and long chances and pushes the possession gauge back in our favor.

In short, it is my humble opinion that the Bears’ offense will not lose the game for them. Headed by an experienced play-caller who already has a “W” against WSU last year, as long as Cal is able to execute with precision and trust their wide-outs (which may be a tough task early), they have the potential to produce the necessary points on the board.

Cal fans, what do you think? What are your predictions for the Wazzu matchup?