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Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against Cal

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Don’t take your eyes off …

It seems like we’re always talking about Washington State’s offensive backfield, but that’s because it’s constantly generating storylines with its inconsistencies. It’s been years since there was this much quarterback instability at WSU. The Cougars have played four QBs, and it hasn’t helped that a talent-laden running back room has yet to hit stride. Fans have been wondering all week whether QB Jayden de Laura and running back Max Borghi will be healthy enough to play when the Cougs and Cal kick off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Berkeley. Cougar buffs should be concerned if either is missing, considering their offense’s lack of fireworks this season. De Laura has been the most effective option at QB by far, and Borghi is arguably the team’s best pound-for-pound player. If cleared to play, will de Laura still be feeling the effects of a left leg injury suffered two weeks ago against USC, and will Borghi be impacted by his left arm injury sustained last weekend? WSU coach Nick Rolovich said Wednesday there’s a “good chance” they both return Saturday, but didn’t divulge any more than that. Borghi was on pace for 24 carries before getting hurt early in the second quarter last week. The Cougs will need their All-Pac-12 back against the Bears, who are third in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (120.8 yards per game). De Laura is a threat to run the ball and also more apt to sling it deep, which would come in handy against a defense that ranks 11th in the conference in passing (297 yards per game).

When WSU has the ball …

Regardless of who’s in the backfield, can WSU score some more points? The Cougars have only managed to break the 30-point threshold once, against FCS visitor Portland State. It feels like an anomaly for a program that sometimes used to pile up 20-plus points in a quarter. The Cougars have been held to 23.5 points per game, which ranks 10th in the Pac-12. WSU will have to keep pace with a Cal offense that has emerged suddenly among the conference’s most prolific. With possession of the ball, the Cougars haven’t been competitive in crunch time, and have tallied only 10 points in fourth quarters this season. They are relying too much on short throws outside and their ground game is crashing into walls, Rolovich said. WSU has gained 20-plus yards on passing plays seven times this season, and its longest gain through the air was 37 yards against PSU. Rolovich said the Cougars “need to get some more explosiveness” out of the run-and-shoot. Their offensive line is coming off one of its roughest performances in the past few years. It allowed eight sacks against Utah and five tackles for loss in the running game. Only 10 teams in the FBS have conceded more sacks this year than the Cougars. Under coach Justin Wilcox, Cal prides itself on defensive front-seven play. “There were times we didn’t get enough push,” Rolovich said. “There were times we weren’t identifying right. We could have run the ball harder. … There’s definitely some improvement that we need top to bottom on this team.” On offense, in particular.

When Cal has the ball …

Take note of Bears quarterback Chase Garbers’ growth since the last time WSU and Cal squared off. The senior, who is 15-11 as the team’s starter, has developed from an average pocket-passer into a dynamic player and one of the nation’s most efficient QBs. He has completed 66.4% of his passes (40th in the FBS) for 1,093 yards and seven touchdowns against four picks. He’s the Bears’ No. 2 rusher, too, having accumulated 224 gross yards and two scores on 33 attempts (6.79 yards per carry). The Cougs have been fortunate this season in terms of the quarterbacks they have defended. WSU faced Utah State’s shaky platoon system, USC’s true freshman, an FCS signal-caller from Portland State and Utah’s run-first QB making his first start. It’s likely that Garbers presents more of a challenge than any of those previously mentioned. “Chase is playing the best football of his career and I think he can play even better,” Wilcox said. “In the past three weeks, Chase has thrown the ball down the field and in intermediate range more successfully than he had in the past. He ran the ball, scrambled and made some timely runs, quarterback-called runs.” Garbers’ critics point to his turnover rate. In 28 games, he has tossed 20 interceptions. WSU’s defense ranks No. 6 in the nation in takeaways with 10, but six of them are fumble recoveries. “Takeaways, to me, it’s always been like a water faucet,” safeties coach Mark Banker said. “It turns on and it comes flowing out.” WSU’s defense hasn’t had a knack in past years for creating turnovers, so defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has prioritized that aspect since arriving from Wyoming ahead of last season. The Cougs have added multiple new drills at practice that emphasize getting a hand on the ball. “You’re constantly talking about the ball,” Banker said. “When you get into drills, you’re more physical about it and the actual technique of raking it, punching it.” WSU’s defensive line will be key in pressuring Garbers into giveaways. The Cougs have only recorded four sacks, while Cal has permitted just six.

Playing for B.G.

The Cougs are dedicating their season to teammate Brandon Gray, who was seriously injured in a shooting near campus last weekend. Gray was life-flighted to a Spokane hospital, and the junior wide receiver from Detroit is out of the ICU and recovering, surrounded by family members, Rolovich said Wednesday. “We’re rooting for him. We’re playing for him,” cornerback Chau Smith-Wade said. Rolovich was proud of the Cougars for their spirited performance in last Saturday’s 24-13 loss to Utah. Rolovich received the news at about 2:30 the morning of the game, just a few hours after the incident had occurred, and he told the players what he’d heard just a few hours before kickoff. “If it had affected our team more than that, I couldn’t be mad at them,” Rolovich said. “We talked about playing inspired football for B.G. … I was thoroughly, extremely proud of the way they played with that on their minds. I get that we didn’t win the game, but how they approached it and the effort they put forth, which I think people saw, is commendable.”