There are a lot of numbers you can throw around to make one think the Bears are just going to jog into Pullman and roll over the Cougars. Oh, you could point to the fact that the Bears have beaten the Cougars seven straight times. Or perhaps you're yawning at a WSU offense that has failed to score touchdowns in two games this season and is ranked 100th nationally in scoring offense (at just 21.8 points per game).
And if you're not a numbers kind of guy, maybe you're just thinking, "C'mon, these guys' only wins are against Eastern Washington and UNLV! And they lost to Colorado!" COLORADO, PEOPLE.
AND their head coach is calling his team zombies!
Well stop it. Just stop it. If this season, no heck, if being a Cal fan has taught us anything, it's that we can't take any team lightly. The Bears have historically won big games only to face plant against a "lesser team" the following week.
And never, EVER discount the difficulty of playing on the road.
Here are a few quick keys to the game.
Discipline in Coverage
While the Bears face their third straight spread offense, it'd be a mistake to think that Mike Leach's famed air raid attack is much like what Cal's defense has seen the past few weeks. WSU's offense operates out of the shotgun, and is designed to spread defenses out with multiple wide receiver sets. The offense is balanced to throw 70% of the time (typically), with quick, short yard passes designed to operate much like runs on first and second down. Success in this category ultimately leads to increasingly open passing windows down field and the occasional run play up the middle.
The offense was wildly successful and Texas Tech, but hasn't seen nearly the level of success up in Pullman just yet.
While the Cougs' passing attack ranks 15th nationally, they rank 97th in total offense, and 100th in scoring offense. They have virtually no running game to speak of, managing 41 yards on the ground. And you know Leach would be fine with his rushing numbers if Wazzu could just score some points.
Still, it's a dangerous offense, and Cal fans know all too well the challenges and horrors of facing pass happy offenses.
Successfully defending this offense depends a whole lot on good discipline, having the secondary know their "fits" or where to fit in on coverage (either inside or outside the receiver), and not trying to get too cute and overly aggressive in creating pressure on the quarterback.
WSU's offense isn't designed to have the QB spend too much time in the pocket. Thus, it's not always effective to send extra men on the blitz because it'll only create more opportunities for open receivers in the open field. In fact, Oregon State often only sent 3 or 4 defenders at Wazzu, and often got pressure simply plugging their gaps and pushing the pocket.
With the Bears likely seeing 5 in the secondary, there's a good chance you'll a lot of 4-2-5 packages on defense. I fully expect Clancy Pendergast to dial up some pressure, but it'll likely be in some disguised blitzes, as well as some disguised pressure by the defensive line in some slants and stunts. The rest of the focus will be on shutting down throwing windows, and trying to blanket WSU's defenders.
Either QB (Connor Halliday or Jeff Tuel) can be pressured into mistakes, having thrown up a combined 12 interceptions this season, and the majority have come on forced throws. The Bears are going to have to rely on good disciplined coverage on defense to force indecision and mistakes from WSU's QBs. Too much cushion on any of WSU's receivers is going to lead to Leach's pirate crew slowly picking the Bears apart. That sounds nasty, no?
Break the Red Zone Blues
WSU's defense is much improved after having been the achilles heel of a team that could put up points in the past.
They're an aggressive, attacking defense that does a nice job of getting after the QB and swarming to the ball. They've been pretty decent in most statistical categories, but have really struggled in big plays and third down conversions.
Really, there's nothing that jumps out to me as being an obvious deficiency, so it looks like the Bears are just going to have to go out there and play focused ball on offense. Imagine that!
If there's one particular area I'd consider people to look out for, is the Bears' play inside the red zone. Cal's infamously struggled in this category this season, and it's no shocker that when the Bears scored on TDs on 3 of their 5 red zone visits last week, the offense looked flat out explosive.
WSU's defense has given up a putrid 454 yards per game this season, but they've actually buckled down pretty well in the redzone, allowing opponents to score TDs on just 48% of their attempts. The Bears are going to have avoid penalties and missed assignments, especially when they get inside their 20. If they can do that, I'm cautiously optimistic they can outscore the Cougars.
I was pretty scared about this game at the beginning of the season. Heck by mid-September, I had chalked this game up as a loss.
With that said, I'm feeling that Tedford will have his team ready to play. I can't really explain why, but you have to think this coaching staff knows what's at stake this season, and that despite a big win over UCLA, it doesn't change the fact that this team and regime is still under major scrutiny. All it takes is a faceplant against WSU to get them back to where they were after ASU. I don't think any coach is sitting back on their laurels.
As for the team's mentality, all it takes is one look at this video to know how this team feels after getting a taste of victory.
This is still a fairly young team. It's tough for a young team to have as difficult of a stretch that the Bears had in September. But I can tell ya: winning is addictive. And once you get a taste of a big win, you want more, and depending on your coaches and mental makeup, that can either fuel you to replicate that focus or you can get comfortable and complacent.
There is nothing from Cal's track record or from what I've seen from the coaches to think they're in any position to get comfortable. And I don't think they will. The Bears are more talented than WSU right now, and if they show up to play, they should handle a tricky contest against the Cougs.
Cal 30 WSU 24