BERKELEY, Calif. – Mike Leach and Justin Wilcox would never admit to envy, but if they could each borrow something from the other’s football program, it’s hard to imagine they’d pass up the opportunity.
If Washington State had Cal’s discipline in the defensive secondary, or Evan Weaver’s hyperactivity in its linebacking corps, the 4-4 Cougars might be in a better place than they are.
If WSU could throw Cal a few of its rangy, athletic, sure-handed wide receivers, or send over quarterback Anthony Gordon for a game or two, the 4-4 Golden Bears would probably feel much more optimistic about their prospects of getting back to the postseason.
Of course, neither WSU head coach Leach or Cal head coach Wilcox would be willing to give up what they have. But they’re also conscientious of what they need.
Gordon, who’s thrown for 420 yards per game, is the driving force of a WSU offense averaging a league-high 37.2 points per game. It’s anyone’s guess how competitive or formidable the Cougars might be if they didn’t field a defense that was giving up 38 ppg.
You could almost say the same thing about Cal, only in reverse.
Behind Utah and Oregon, which are still in the mix for College Football Playoff berths, the Golden Bears rank third in the Pac-12, giving up 23.2 ppg. But Cal’s slow-starting offense is only scoring about half that, at 12.2 ppg, and for the first time under Wilcox and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, the Bears were blanked in their last game, losing to the Utes 35-0.
Which unit – Cal’s offense or WSU’s defense – is better on Saturday or is less inept, could determine whether the Cougars (4-4, 1-4) or the Golden Bears (4-4, 1-4) walk out of Memorial Stadium one game better than .500, and one step closer to the postseason.
On behalf of WSU, co-interim defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni said the Cougars are “more comfortable with what we’re doing here,” and have “more of an idea of what our guys do better, and I think some of the plan is evolving over and over, and I think that’s a good thing.”
The wholesale personnel changes made by the Cougars on the depth chart didn’t come until Week 6, after former DC Tracy Claeys resigned. While Bellantoni laments that those changes didn’t come sooner, he admits “there’s nothing you can do about that, but I feel really comfortable with where we’re at right now.”
The man in charge of Cal’s offense, which went from bad to worse when quarterback Chase Garbers was injured against Arizona State, is also confident in his unit’s ability to turn things around – even if the numbers or personnel don’t point to a revival soon.
“A lot of guys can start to splinter, they can start to splinter and a lot of things can happen when you go through any stretch where things aren’t successful or as successful as you want them to be,” said Baldwin, who was at the helm at Eastern Washington before leaving to help Wilcox in Berkeley in 2017. “Our guys don’t do that, so I have a lot of respect for this crew out here.”
Even though the Cougars have yet to win a true road game this season, Las Vegas oddsmakers, perhaps encouraged by WSU’s showing two weeks ago against an Oregon team recently tabbed No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings, made the visitors 7 1/2-point favorites in Berkeley. Cal’s blowout loss at No. 7 Utah probably factored into that as well.
But a few of the current WSU players still remember being 14 1/2-point favorites, and unbeaten, when they visited the Golden Bears two seasons ago. Cal pummeled the Luke Falk-led Cougars 38-3 in an eerie Friday night game at Memorial Stadium, dropping the Cougars out of the top 10 of the Associated Press rankings.
The Bears have been good for one big upset per season under Wilcox. Last year, they sprung a 12-10 win over No. 13 Washington, playing so well on defense that Chris Petersen chose to bench the Huskies’ longtime starter and all-time leading passer, Jake Browning, midway through.
Although WSU hasn’t won in Berkeley since Leach’s second season, the coach brushed off the notion that Memorial Stadium is a difficult place to play.
“We’ve won more games than they have, is that an aberration?” Leach responded on Monday when a reporter tossed out his win-loss record in games played at Cal since 2013. “What kind of question is that? All right, next question.”
Leach was slightly more forthcoming when the question was phrased differently the following day.
Pac-12 opponents have often stated the visiting team needs to create its own energy at Memorial Stadium, because the crowds aren’t always the most rambunctious. Leach was asked for his thoughts on that.
“It’s a gorgeous stadium and they’re a little off you, so it’s not particularly loud,” Leach said. “They’re a ways off you, where they’re back, kind of.”
It’s been 48 days since Cal’s football team has given its fans a great reason to show up for a home game. Sept. 21 was the date of the Golden Bears’ most recent victory, at Ole Miss. In the midst of a four-game losing streak, they probably won’t be threatening any attendance records on a warm afternoon in the Bay Area.
But the Cougars could bring a strong contingent to Berkeley. Wide receiver Easop Winston Jr., a San Francisco native, said he expects around 80 family members and friends to be in attendance, while Gordon, from nearby Pacifica, should have dozens more in tow.
“Most of the town of Pacifica will be there,” Gordon assured. “So that’ll be pretty cool.”
Mitigating the home-field advantage wouldn’t hurt, but the game is much more about the X’s and O’s – how Cal and its reeling offense will fare against WSU and its work-in-progress defense.
It may not be an attractive matchup, but it is an important one.
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