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Three Washington State position groups to watch closely against Cal

Washington State right tackle Abraham Lucas (72) lines up for a play during the first half of a nonconference game against Utah State on Sept. 4 in Pullman.  (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

The offensive line

Only 10 teams in the FBS have allowed more sacks than the Washington State Cougars, whose O-line was widely expected to be among the program’s most stable position groups this season.

WSU (1-3, 0-2 Pac-12) ranks last in the conference with 15 sacks surrendered (3.75 per game). It should be noted that eight came during the Cougars’ 24-13 loss to Utah on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

Cougars coach Nick Rolovich said the big men weren’t to blame for a few of them. Backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, starting in place of the injured Jayden de Laura, ran into pressure on a couple of occasions, and sometimes hung too long in the pocket.

“I knew that, with the number of sacks, they (the O-line) would catch the brunt of the heat,” Rolovich said Monday, “and I don’t think that was fair. I think there were some opportunities for us to get the ball out that wouldn’t have put the offensive line in that position.

“Now, credit to the Utah front seven. They made some plays and brought some tough blitzes at times. There’s definitely improvement that could be made on the offensive line, but I can’t put all those sacks on them.”

It appears the Cougars are still experimenting with various personnel groupings in the trenches. Veterans Abraham Lucas – an NFL prospect who ranks among the Pac-12’s best linemen, per Pro Football Focus – and Liam Ryan are cemented at the tackle posts, but there are moving parts inside.

Junior Cade Beresford and sophomore Ma’ake Fifita are rotating at right guard. Fifita, who hails from Everett, has played a touch of left tackle this year, too. Beresford – a 6-foot-7, 300-pounder from Woodinville, Washington – won the job outright in fall camp, but has not been solidified there.

Saturday saw the return of center Brian Greene, a Yakima product and Rimington Trophy watch list player (top college center). Yet Greene wasn’t playing his natural position versus the Utes. He alternated with left guard Jarrett Kingston.

The Cougs stuck with sophomore Konner Gomness at center. He’s been starting in Greene’s stead since late in the first quarter of WSU’s Week 1 loss to Utah State. The results have been mixed.

Rolovich said he was easing Greene back in, not putting too much on his shoulders in hopes of preserving the fifth-year senior’s health.

All told, the Cougars’ interior O-line play has not been stellar. Pressure up the middle was a common theme at Rice-Eccles Stadium . To anyone paying close attention, that seems to have been the case throughout the first four games of this season.

In the rushing game, WSU is at its most effective when its backs bounce outside.

Aside from sacks, the Cougars have given up 17 tackles for loss – 12 between the tackles. WSU’s 32 tackles for loss allowed ranks 11th in the Pac-12.

The Cougars’ O-line faces a challenge in Cal (1-3, 0-1), which emphasizes front-seven play. The teams meet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Berkeley.

In five years under coach Justin Wilcox, the Bears have become known for their physical play up front. They boast big-bodied linebackers and one of the conference’s most talented interior lineman in seventh-year collegian Luc Bequette.

Cal’s defense sits near the bottom of the conference with 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks. But the Golden Bears are third in the Pac-12 in stopping the run (120.8 yards per game).

The offensive backfield, of course

It looks like we’ll be left in the dark right up until kickoff … again.

WSU’s starting quarterback against Utah was unknown to the outside world until Guarantano trotted out with the offense.

You know the story, but let’s rehash it real quick: Guarantano won the QB job in the preseason but got hurt in Week 1, then de Laura also got hurt a couple of weeks later – he tweaked his left leg against USC on Sept. 18. Guarantano got the nod to take the reins versus the Utes over junior Cammon Cooper. Rolovich noted de Laura was “close” to playing.

OK, so perhaps the Hawaiian sophomore will start at Cal?

That’d be welcome news for the Coug faithful, because de Laura at QB has equated to more offensive potency and consistency than Guarantano at QB.

Guarantano looked sharp for stretches in Salt Lake City, but those bright moments did not exceed the mistakes.

The grad transfer out of Tennessee tossed three interceptions. Limited mostly to quick outs and short balls underneath, he couldn’t get the offense moving after halftime.

In a game and some change this year, Guarantano is 33 of 49 (67.35%) for 304 yards, one TD and three picks.

In a little over two full games’ worth of action, de Laura is 43 of 70 (61.43%) for 575 yards and six TDs against two picks.

With de Laura running the show, the Cougars are clearly more explosive. He’s known to take deep shots and his zip out of the pocket forces opposing defenses to account for an extra ballcarrier at all times.

Cal’s defense has had a little trouble containing mobile QBs this season. TCU’s Max Duggan gained 103 rushing yards and tallied a score and Sacramento State’s Asher O’Hara totaled 49 yards and two touchdowns.

The Bears’ passing defense has been shredded for 297 yards per game this season (11th in the Pac-12 and 120th nationally).

WSU might have to lean on the pass in Berkeley because the Bears’ rushing defense is superb and – most important – because Max Borghi is “questionable” to play.

We can all agree that Borghi, the Cougs’ senior running back, has the stuff that could determine a game’s outcome. The future NFL draft pick is a threat to break free for a touchdown run on any attempt. His cut-and-accelerate ability is striking, unlike any other players’ on the field during Coug games.

Borghi was running wild before his left arm got twisted up under a Utes defender early in the second quarter last weekend. He didn’t play the rest of the way and, without its most vital game-changer, the moxie drained from WSU’s offense.

Backup back Deon McIntosh is no slouch. But he’s no Borghi, either.

McIntosh has a solid career resume and he’s averaging 5.1 yards per carry this season, though he’s typically a between-the-tackles runner and is less elusive than Borghi, who can bounce out of trouble in a flash and fashion positive gains when all seems lost. Borghi has 217 yards and two scores on 37 runs (a 5.9 yards-per-carry average) this year.

McIntosh’s backup, Wisconsin transfer Nakia Watson, is more of a power back. He impressed in fall camp but has been used sparingly and only handed the ball eight times.

Without Borghi, the Cougars’ rushing game risks becoming somewhat predictable against an opponent that fares well in clogging up the middle.

Without Borghi or de Laura, WSU’s odds of a third consecutive offensive letdown increase.

The Cougs have been held to 20 points or fewer in their past three matchups with the Bears.

The defensive line

More specifically, the gap-pluggers on the inside.

WSU tends to rotate defensive tackles Christian Mejia, Ahmir Crowder, Amir Mujahid and Antonio Pule.

The four have combined for 21 tackles and only three stops in the backfield. None has recorded a sack.

Cougar edge-rusher Ron Stone Jr. has 20 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. True freshman edge Andrew Edson owns two of the Cougs’ four sacks.

Yes, the edge-rushers are faster and more athletic and generally expected to produce more numbers than the tackles. But WSU sure could use an uptick from its interior linemen against Cal, which fields a power running game that’s content to pound the rock up the gut with its bulky back a dozen-plus times per game.

Damien Moore has run for 304 yards and five touchdowns on 59 carries (5.1 yards per attempt).

Cal is fifth in the conference at 167.5 rushing yards per game.

The Cougars’ interior D-line was split down the middle on Utah’s two biggest running plays last week – a 59-yarder from T.J. Pledger in the fourth quarter and the Utes’ go-ahead touchdown in the final quarter, a 20-yard dart from Pledger.

Slippery Cal quarterback Chase Garbers has been sacked just six times this year. The Bears’ passing game has improved drastically since the last time these teams met, and Garbers can make a defense pay if it fails to contain him. He has registered 177 yards rushing, second among Bears runners.

If Garbers gets comfortable in the pocket, he’ll pick WSU apart. If the edges lose contain, he’ll scurry for 10 yards. If Cougars tackles aren’t doing their part in closing lanes, Moore might get 30 carries.

WSU’s rushing defense has been mostly competent this season, but it crumbled down the stretch in losses to Utah State and Utah. As for the Cougs’ pass rush, four sacks in four games is not a satisfactory total.