BERKELEY, California – Nick Rolovich was asked earlier this week to detail his keys for Saturday’s game at Cal, and the Washington State football coach first offered some hard numbers that need improving.
He said the Cougars cannot afford to turn the ball over. They did so three times last week in a 24-13 loss at Utah. Backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw an interception in the red zone early and was picked late with the game on the line.
Rolovich then highlighted third-down conversions. The Cougars couldn’t keep drives alive on four important third downs in the second half against the Utes.
It’s been a struggle all year. They’re 10th in the Pac-12 with a 31% conversion rate on third down (15 of 49).
Last, the second-year coach said his Cougs must improve in one aspect that is less tangible than those statistics: “Play 60 minutes of football.”
It’s not always visible in the drive charts and data, but the inconsistent nature of this WSU team has been palpable.
“Finishing. Consistency and finishing,” edge Ron Stone Jr. said when a reporter asked the same question about keys to winning. “Playing a complete game. We’re playing a football game, not a football half. It’s that conscious effort to play each quarter and finish each quarter out.”
WSU’s talent has gleamed in stints, but it’s largely been overshadowed by extended periods of offensive sluggishness, which have put the Cougars’ defense in tough positions.
When they visit Cal for a 2:30 p.m. conference game Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the Cougars hope they can put it together and come away with their first FBS win of the year.
“I don’t think anyone in our locker room is coming out here and saying, ‘I’m not feeling it this quarter,’ ” Stone said.
And how do you finish out games?
“Just staying focused, not letting up, not getting comfortable in those situations,” Stone said. “Keep your foot on the gas and keep driving forward.”
WSU made progress last weekend in Salt Lake City, according to players and coaches alike.
The Cougars were in the game until Guarantano’s pick-6 with just over 2 minutes left. A week earlier, they collapsed entirely and allowed 45 unanswered points to USC in a blowout loss. WSU’s defense played its most complete game and its offense had the ball moving before halftime.
“It could have gone better, it could have been better,” Rolovich said of the Utah game. “But I think we took a step forward. I know it’s a loss and I know that may make people mad, but I think the fight till the very end, the fight on the goal line to get that last fumble (forced at the 1-yard line by nickel Armani Marsh) to keep us in the game (were good signs).
“There were opportunities that we need to take advantage of in this league and we didn’t do that enough.”
WSU’s offense – which Rolovich said has a “good chance” of returning injured standouts in quarterback Jayden de Laura and running back Max Borghi – has been stifled in past years by Cal, a defensive-minded outfit under coach Justin Wilcox with an emphasis on the front.
But, like WSU’s offense, the Golden Bears’ defense hasn’t been itself this year. It ranks 11th in total defense (417.8 yards per game) and has been shredded through the air for 297 yards per outing.
The Bears have excelled in the past five years under Wilcox in sacking opposing quarterbacks and creating turnovers. This year, they have six sacks and six takeaways.
“The other one I’d bring up is third-down defense (31 of 66),” Wilcox said. “We haven’t been up to the standard (on defense) where we’ve been in the past.
“There’s some new faces and there’s some guys that are getting valuable reps, and we just have to do it with consistency. There’s moments, but in order to play good defense, you can’t do it 60 out of 75 plays. You gotta be hitting at a higher clip than that.”
Cal is coming off an overtime loss to Washington. The Bears dropped a five-point decision to Nevada earlier in the year and fell by two to TCU a couple of weeks ago. Like WSU, their one win came against an FCS opponent.
The Bears and the Cougars are aiming to bounce back from emotional defeats and shift their outlooks.
“(The Utah game) hurt probably more than the rest because of how much they strained and how much they wanted it,” Rolovich said. “I’m very impressed with the character of this group to come in and come back to work and … learn from it and move on from it quickly.
“I thought this one may hang around longer, and it didn’t.”
Cal boasts a much-improved senior quarterback in Chase Garbers, a balanced running back in Damien Moore (304 yards, five touchdowns on 59 carries), a couple of strong tight ends and “long receivers,” WSU safeties coach Mark Banker said.
“They’re a little bit of a combination schematically between USC and Utah,” he said, referring to Cal’s power running game and knack for chunk gains through the air.
WSU’s defense is statistically mediocre, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Cougars have made a number of clutch plays on that end and rank No. 6 in the nation in takeaways.
“They’re very active on defense,” Wilcox said.
Cal’s defense is characteristically stingy in the run game, and that hasn’t changed this year. The Bears, however, have a penetrable pass defense (297 yards per game) of which WSU might take advantage.
“They give you more variables in the run game,” Wilcox noted. “It’s not the same as the WSU with coach (Mike) Leach.”
The Cougars have not won in Berkeley since 2013. They have been held to 20 points or fewer in the past three meetings with Wilcox’s Bears. Rolovich said WSU has not given the recent history much notice.
The teams transformed this season. The Cougars are being carried by defense while the Bears are transitioning to an offense-minded squad.