As usual on Friday afternoon, after we arrive in our destination (this week, the Bay Area), we post our advance and game day items. Here they are. Read on.
• Here’s the advance story …
BERKELEY – When Jahvid Best broke an 80-yard run to open Cal’s 66-3 rout of Washington State University last year in Pullman, there was one simple reason why the play was so open.
A WSU linebacker had over run his gap.
The Cougar defense is built on each player fulfilling his assignment. If one player is out of place, it makes it that much tougher on the other 10 to make a play.
Such was the case on that play last year. The linebacker took the wrong angle, pursued too far and, when Best planted and turned upfield, had left a hole wide enough for even a bad back to exploit.
And Best isn’t a bad back.
So what will it take this year for the Cougars to slow a Cal running game that is averaging 200.5 yards per game, helping the Bears to a Pac-10-best 32.8 points per game?
“The first priority for our defense is, we’ve got to be very gap sound,” Wulff said this week, “and make sure we don’t give away a gap. Because if they hit it full speed it’s pretty tough for them to be stopped.
“We’ve got to be in good position and we have to tackle well.”
The Bears are 4-2 overall but just 1-2 in Pac-10 after opening their conference season with blowout losses at Oregon and at home to USC. They regrouped over a bye week, bused to Los Angeles and ran all over UCLA’s defense – 494 yards of total offense – en route to a 45-26 victory.
The Cougars (1-5, 0-4) are coming off a bye themselves, though they didn’t get as healthy as they hoped. Only one of three injured offensive linemen – guard Zack Williams – will return to the starting lineup today and linebacker Louis Bland, third on the team in tackles, probably won’t play after re-aggravating a knee injury this week.
The line woes are problematic for a team that averages 14.8 points a game and has yet to score this season in the first quarter.
“When you’re shuffling your offensive line, at any level of football,” Wulff said, “you’re consistency is just not as good.”
But the WSU defense is improved over the group that gave up almost 44 points a game last season. That number is down by more than a touchdown, and the Cougars have forced 18 turnovers already, after coming up with just 13 all last season.
“I think it’s pretty obvious, we’re a lot better,” Wulff said of the defense. “You haven’t seen a lot of those big plays against our defense, particularly in the running game this year.
“Now, this is our biggest test by far when it comes to defending a great runner with great speed like Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen.”
It was a test they flunked many times last season.
“Last year our safeties ended up having whiplash after the game,” Wulff joked, “they ran by them so quick and so fast. So I offered them a neck brace for them this year.
“Hopefully, they won’t need to use them.”
• And here is the game day stuff …
Washington State at California
Kickoff: 1:30 p.m., Memorial Stadium
Radio: KXLY 920-AM
• Tale of the tape
Washington State Cougars
Record: 0-4 Pac-10, 1-5 Overall
Coach: Paul Wulff, second season
California Golden Bears
Record: 1-2 Pac-10, 4-2 Overall
Coach: Jeff Tedford, eighth season
Last meeting: 9/6/08
Cal 66, WSU 3
WSU had a bye; lost to Arizona State, 27-14 on Oct. 10
Cal defeated UCLA, 45-26
Cal leads 40-25-5
• At a glance
When the Cougars run: The Bears’ rushing defense is at-best middle of the Pac-10 road. The group yields almost 123 yards a game on the ground, a number held down considerably by Cal’s 18 sacks for 131 yards lost. The Cougars’ rushing attack has been hamstrung since injuries sidelined James Montgomery and much of the starting offensive line. One guard is back for sure, Zack Williams, but the line, still recovering, will be hard-pressed to open holes. EDGE: Cal
When the Cougars pass: Give Jeff Tuel time and he can be productive. That seems to be a lesson learned in his first three games. But the sample size is small, because Tuel rarely has had time to throw. Today probably won’t be much different, though you can expect the Cougars to do a few new things to keep the Bears’ rush off-balance. Not only does Cal have one of the best pass rushes out of its 3-4 set, but it also has one of the best corners in the conference in Syd’Quan Thompson, whose availability today is up in the air due to injury. EDGE: Cal
When the Bears run: The statistics say they should average 5.4 yards per carry today. After all, that’s the Bears average this season each time they decide to keep the ball on the ground. And it’s also the average WSU yields every time its opponent runs the ball. The Cougars will do everything they can to limit Jahvid Best (102.7 yards per game) and company, but with second-leading tackler – and best playmaker – Louis Bland probably not able to go with knee and rib injuries, WSU is playing shorthanded. EDGE: Cal
When the Bears pass: If the Cal offense has an Achilles’ heel, this is probably it. Quarterback Kevin Riley is only as good as his running game. If the Bears run the ball effectively, Riley seems to be able to connect on play action. But if Cal’s runners are bottled up, which Oregon and USC were able to do, then Riley, like most quarterbacks, struggles. WSU’s secondary isn’t of Oregon’s or USC’s caliber, but it has proved to be pretty close when it comes to forcing turnovers. If the Cougars can force a couple errant throws – Riley has just one interception – then WSU has a chance to stay within shouting distance. EDGE: WSU
Coaching/intangibles: When the season started Cal was, along with USC, one of the teams to beat in the Pac-10. And nothing the Bears did in their first three games changed that perception. Then came the debacle at Oregon and the beat down in Los Angeles. All of a sudden the Bears were off the radar. They took a step back toward respectability last week with the easy win over UCLA, but anything less than dominating WSU will bring doubts. And the Bears know it. EDGE: Cal
State finances: Things are tough in Washington. The state was forced to institute cuts in just about every service it offers, including higher education. But at least the legislature was able to come up with a plan within a reasonable amount of time. Not so in California. A budget shortfall that approached the level of some third-world countries was met with bickering, back-biting and IOUs. By the time the dust settled, just about every state employee was taking furlough days and taxes were headed up. EDGE: WSU
• 3 things to watch
Keys to today’s Washington State-Cal matchup
1. Jahvid Best: This 5-foot-10, 195-pound running back probably really isn’t a key to the game. There’s not much chance, baring injury, the Cougars will be able to limit his touches or yardage. But he’s just fun to watch. Though he looks like a guy who would rather run away from a tackler – and he can do that – he can lower a shoulder and gain an extra yard as well. However, that’s not you should look for. In last year’s game with WSU, he had at least a handful of “how-did-he-do-that” plays. Expect at least a couple again today.
2. The punters: In most games, the Cougars step on the field knowing they have at least an advantage at one position: punter. That’s still the case today, but it’s a lot closer than usual. Though Reid Forrest is still one of the conference’s best punters (the junior is averaging 43.9 yards per kick, third in the Pac-10), Cal’s Bryan Anger is the reigning All-Pac-10 honoree at that position. The 6-foot-4 sophomore is averaging 41.9 this season, and the Bears have struggled to cover his kicks. Cal ranks ninth in punt coverage.
3. Time to throw: The Bears are tied for second in the conference in sacks with 18. But the three teams they are either tied with (Oregon, Arizona State) or trail (USC, with 26) have already played WSU. Now it’s Cal’s turn. The Cougars are getting a little healthier up front, but 253-pound freshman Alex Reitnouer will probably be called upon to hold down the all-important left tackle spot for at least the start of the game. That doesn’t bode well for the Cougar offense.
• 3 names to know
CAL DEFENSIVE END
When asked about the 6-foot-3, 295-pound senior, WSU coach Paul Wulff called him a beast, which is about as good a compliment as you can give a defensive end. Alualu, from Honolulu’s St. Louis High, the same school that produced Jason Gesser, was a second-team All-Pac-10 selection last year when he led all Cal defensive linemen with 62 tackles, including 11 behind the line of scrimmage. He’s on a similar pace this season, tied for third on the Bears with 27 tackles including 5.5 for loss. He’s also improved his pass rush, with a team-leading 4.5 sacks, nearly to his 2008 total (six) in half the games.
The 6-foot, 227-pound sophomore will be thrown into the breach at middle backer today, with usual starter Alex Hoffman-Ellis still hampered by a staph infection and key backup Louis Bland probably out. Though Ledgerwood, from River View High, has played in all six WSU games, that’s been mostly on special teams. The test today in his first start couldn’t be tougher. The key to stopping the Bears’ ground game is what coaches call gap control, keeping anchored in your assigned offensive gap. Not only will Ledgerwood be charged with getting to the right gap, he’ll have to stay there and then bring down a player of Jahvid Best’s caliber.
It’s not often a backup quarterback is highlighted. But it’s not often a backup quarterback is the grandson of one of the Cougars’ all-time most celebrated coaches, Jim Sweeney. Or that backup quarterback started in front of WSU’s starter in high school. Beau Sweeney is both those things. Dad Kevin played quarterback for Jim at Fresno State and then settled down in the area. Beau started for Clovis West High as a junior and senior, throwing and running for more than 1,000 yards as a senior. One of his receivers that year was Jeff Tuel, who replaced him as the quarterback when Sweeney headed to Cal, and will start for WSU today.
• This and that from today’s game …
The Bears two losses were by a combined 72-6 score to Oregon and USC. Playing the same opponents on opposite Saturdays, the Cougars lost 79-12. … The Cougars have yet to score in the first quarter this year and didn’t in the last three games in 2008. They also haven’t scored in the first half since the Southern Methodist game. … Sophomore Giorgio Tavecchio, who converted his only field goal attempt this season, will probably kick for the Bears today. Usual kicker Vince D’Amato injured his shoulder last week. … When Best had two touchdown runs of 80 or more yards against WSU last season, he became the first Cal player to have scoring runs of that length in his career, let alone one game. … The Cougars have 16 freshmen or sophomores among their two-deep on offense and defense this week. … Less than half the WSU starters have started every game at the same position.
• That’s it for tonight. We’ll be back early tomorrow with links and thoughts. Until then …