Coming into the 2018 season, the expectations for the Washington State Cougars were somewhat conservative. Mike Leach lost defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to Ohio State in the offseason and the Cougars star quarterback, Luke Falk, took his talents to the NFL. After a stunning and dominating upset of the Cougars last year, some Cal fans—including myself—had this years Washington State–Cal match-up as a winnable game for the Bears despite being on the road in early November.
Now with Washington State in the middle of a four-game winning streak, that confidence has all but disappeared. The Cougars have beaten the 2018 murderer’s row of the Pac-12 (Utah Utes, Oregon Ducks, Stanford Cardinal) and hosted their first ever College Game Day in their eventual win against Oregon. Their offense ranks as the eighth best unit in Offensive S&P+ and quarterback Gardner Minshew looks better than Luke Falk.
In a Saturday night primetime match-up that will feature one of the nation’s best defenses and secondaries pitted against the nation’s best passing offense, the Cal coaching staff will have to find another way to slow down an elite-level offense. Strength on strength match-ups are always fun to watch and this game shouldn’t disappoint for two teams trying to cement themselves as contenders in the Pac-12 for years to come.
The Washington State Offense
What exactly makes Mike Leach’s offense so successful? If you remember when Leach was hired at Washington State, there were many questions about how well he would be able to implement his system into a conference that featured elite-level defensive talent. It took a few years to come fully to fruition, but Leach has been wildly successful in bringing his Air Raid offense to the west coast and transforming Washington State football.
A supremely simplified description of an Air Raid offense is that it simplifies the decision-making for a quarterback and relies on the signal caller to identify whether or not the defense is in man or zone coverage. The receivers essentially have two options in the Air Raid offense. When the defense shows man, the receivers will proceed through their routes as planned. When the defense shows zone, the receivers will shorten their intended route to drop into the soft part of the zone. In these scenarios, Minshew progresses through each one of his reads and focuses on finding the open receiver.
Washington State and most Air Raid offenses will also rely heavily on wide receiver screens to help them push the ball downfield and simulate a rushing attack. This is why under Sonny Dykes you saw such a recruiting emphasis on smaller, faster players like Melquise Stovall. Yet Leach’s offense can still run the ball effectively out of the backfield and that is a big testament to Leach’s prowess as a coach. Not only does the Cal defense have to worry about a screen or vertical attack on each play, but they also have to key in on the running game as the Cougars can chew you up on the ground with running back James Williams. If you’d like to take a deeper look at Leach’s Air Raid offense, I highly recommend this PFF article.
Finally, what most Pac-12 fans will know about Washington State is that their pre-snap formations have a tendency to be....fairly interesting.
Not the first time Washington State's used that trick formationhttps://t.co/MQM9dbvxad— College Football by SB Nation (@SBNationCFB) October 20, 2018
The Washington State staff has increasingly utilized pre-snap shifts to give their team an extra yard of space to get eight- or nine-yard gains. This will be a particularly fascinating match-up to watch as both of our linebackers will be primarily responsible for shifting the defense when the Washington State offense undoubtedly starts their movement.
Match-up to watch: Dezmon Patmon vs Camryn Bynum
The All Pac-12 Offense of the Week from Week 9 pic.twitter.com/rJJzQe2fhf— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 31, 2018
By all accounts, the player to watch on the Washington State offense is Gardner Minshew. He leads the country in passing and is a mobile threat on the ground with ten touchdowns on the season. Yet the match-up to watch Saturday night is how Cam Bynum squares up against Washington State receiver Dezmon Patmon. Patmon leads the team in receiving with 578 yards and has excelled in Pac-12 play. His three biggest games of the season have come against arguably the best Pac-12 opponents to date in Oregon, Stanford, and Utah.
Cam Bynum virtually eliminated Aaron Fuller last week against Washington and each Washington State receiver has had a game where they have completely disappeared; for Patmon, that was Oregon State. However, when one receiver seemingly gets bottled up, another breaks loose for a personal best and you can understand the immense pressure the Cal defense will be under all night. This offense can beat you several ways, through several different players, both through the air and on the ground.
What to Expect on Saturday
The Cal defense is more than capable of keeping the Bears in any game left on the schedule this season. The Washington game was a perfect example of just how dominant the Bears defense can be when the team executes and the offense doesn’t put them in less than ideal field position. The Bears also have the benefit of having dominated this style of offense last year at Memorial Stadium when knocking the Cougars out of contention for a top-five ranking.
There are, however, several concerns for the Cal defense as well. This match-up will be way louder and perhaps even way colder than any other game they have had this year. The Bears have struggled against more mobile quarterbacks and even last week, Jake Browning was able to get a couple of third-down conversions early in the game by the way of his legs. The Cal linebackers have to respect Minshew as a runner while not allowing him to pick apart the Cal defense through the air.
All this being said, if there is any defense in the country that is built to slow down this Washington State team, it is most likely the 2018 California Golden Bears.
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*I would be remiss not to mention the tragic passing of Tyler Hilinski this offseason and the amazing work his family has done with the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation. The foundation helps promote education for mental health and wellness amongst student-athletes. You can learn more about the foundation here and I also highly recommend following them on Twitter.