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Sports >  WSU football

First look: Washington State heads to Berkeley in search of first win at Cal since 2013

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 27, 2021

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? Washington State (1-3, 0-2 Pac-12) will play in hostile territory on an opponent’s homecoming day for the second straight weekend. The Cougars are seeking their first FBS win of the year and their first win at Cal (1-3, 0-1) since 2013.

Where is it? California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where can I watch it? Pac-12 Network will carry the broadcast.

Who is favored? The Golden Bears opened as 7.5-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? A three-point Cougar lead late in the fourth quarter slipped Saturday as Utah scored 14 points over the final five minutes to nip WSU 24-13 in Salt Lake City. The Cougs’ offense – led by backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and missing running back Max Borghi, who was injured in the second quarter – went quiet in the second half. Cal rode an impressive performance from quarterback Chase Garbers (30 of 41, 319 yards and 71 rushing yards) to surge back from a 14-point third-quarter deficit in Seattle against Washington, sending the game into overtime. The Huskies forced Bears running back Damien Moore into a fumble on the 1-yard line in the extra period to preserve a 31-24 victory.

Why WSU will win: WSU’s defensive numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Cougars rank 10th in the Pac-12 in total defense at 414.3 yards per game, but their first-half statistics are solid (151 yards allowed on average), and they are sixth nationally with 10 turnovers forced. A largely inconsistent offense has put WSU’s defense in tight situations after halftime this season. Timely plays on the defensive side of the ball kept the Cougars in games against Utah, Utah State and, to some extent, Southern Cal. WSU’s fast-improving defensive front seems to match up well with Cal’s power-running system. Although the Bears’ offense has improved, their typically vaunted defense appears to have taken a step back. They rank 11th in total defense in the Pac-12 (417.8 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (29.3 points per game). WSU is a pass-first team, and that might be an advantage against an opponent that permits 297 yards through the air per game (11th in the Pac-12).

Why Cal will win: Cal boasts a couple of the better front-seven players in the Pac-12, including stout sixth-year linebacker Cameron Goode. WSU’s offensive line struggled last week, permitting eight sacks. Preseason All-Pac-12 pick Kuony Deng, another of the league’s top LBs, is questionable to play. But so are two of WSU’s most important offensive players in running back Max Borghi and quarterback Jayden de Laura. Cal’s defense isn’t the powerhouse it used to be, yet it’s still efficient in stopping the run. It ranks third in the conference at 120.8 yards allowed per game on the ground. “They’ve got some length on the edges, some veterans – especially (fifth-year safety) Elijah Hicks. He’s played a lot of football for them back there,” said WSU coach Nick Rolovich, whose run-and-shoot offense has struggled mightily in the last two games. “But I think they’ve really improved offensively. They’re playing at a high level offensively, more than I remember in preparation for them last year.” Senior quarterback Chase Garbers, a third-year starter, ranks 22nd in the FBS with 1,093 yards and 39th with a 66% completion rate. He has passed for seven touchdowns against four picks, and has added 177 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Garbers has five capable receivers at his disposal and Moore (304 yards, five touchdowns on 59 carries), a 220-pound sophomore, is the Pac-12’s No. 4 leading rusher. Cal might be wise to lean on the running game against a Cougar defense that surrendered 212 rushing yards to Utah last weekend. The Bears gain 440.8 total yards per game, the No. 40 mark in the FBS.

What happened last time? WSU and Cal were slated to square off Dec. 12 in Pullman, but a member of the Bears’ program drew a positive COVID-19 test just hours before kickoff, forcing a late cancellation. Cal’s defense shut down former WSU coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid and Cal skipped to a smooth, 33-20 win in Berkeley on Nov. 9, 2019. The Cougs had tallied only two touchdowns before an insignificant score with five seconds to play. Cal is 48-28-5 in the all-time series. WSU has defeated the Bears just three times in the past 15 meetings (2018, ’16 and ’13).

Things to know

1. WSU had three of its six scheduled games scrapped last season because of the coronavirus, but none compared to the Dec. 12 cancellation. Cougar players were out on the field running through warmups ahead of their meeting with Cal about two hours until kickoff when they learned the Golden Bears would not be allowed to play. A positive COVID-19 test within Cal’s program and the ensuing contact tracing left it too short-handed on the defensive line. The Bears were reportedly riding their bus on the way to Gesa Field when they got the news. It was the first Pac-12 game to be called off after the visiting team had already traveled.

2. Cal was picked to finish third in the Pac-12 North before the season, but has had trouble closing out games – like WSU. The Bears lost by five points to Mountain West underdog Nevada in Week 1 and fell by two points to TCU a week later. Cal led the Wolf Pack 14-0 in the first quarter and held a 19-7 advantage over the Horned Frogs late in the second quarter. The Bears defeated FCS visitor Sacramento State 42-30. The Cougars and Cal are a combined 0-6 this year against FBS competition.

3. The defense-focused Golden Bears have had offense-minded WSU’s number in recent years, holding the Cougars to 20 points or fewer in three meetings during the Justin Wilcox era at Cal. Wilcox was a longtime Power Five defensive coordinator before being hired by the Bears in 2017. He is 22-24 as the boss at Cal, his first stop as a head coach.

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