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Sports >  WSU football

First look: Washington State, coming off heartbreaking loss, entertains Cal for homecoming

Sept. 26, 2022 Updated Tue., Sept. 27, 2022 at 10:31 a.m.

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward (1), slot receiver Renard Bell (9) and guard Christian Hilborn celebrate after Ward scored a touchdown during the first half of a Pac-12 game on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward (1), slot receiver Renard Bell (9) and guard Christian Hilborn celebrate after Ward scored a touchdown during the first half of a Pac-12 game on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

What is it? Coming off a late collapse in a heartbreaking loss to Oregon, the Washington State Cougars (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) look to rebound on homecoming against an improved team from Cal (3-1, 1-0).

Where is it? WSU will close its three-game homestand hosting the Golden Bears at Gesa Field in Pullman.

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

Where can I watch it? The game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network.

Who is favored? The Cougars opened as 4-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? WSU led the 15th-ranked Ducks from early in the first quarter until the final 1:21 of a Pac-12 classic at Gesa Field. The Cougars captured a 12-point advantage with about six minutes remaining, but Oregon strung together two quick scoring possessions and sealed the game with a pick-6 on a last-ditch WSU drive.

Oregon’s high-powered offense gave WSU’s defense a wake-up call. The Cougars entered the game boasting a stout defense that had been climbing the national rankings after three consecutive impressive performances to start the year, but the unit surrendered 624 yards to the Ducks, including 446 through the air. Oregon connected on two 50-yard passes and a couple of 40-yarders.

“I’m not going to say that it’s one thing,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said Monday during his weekly news conference of his team’s passing coverage versus Oregon. “With explosive passes, you look at pass rush, you look at linebackers (matching up with receivers), you look at DB execution. It was all the above.

“With big, explosive passing plays, the DBs get the attention, but it was an every-level deal. I take responsibility for that and we’re excited about getting back out there and getting it changed.”

The Cougars’ defensive backs – an unproven group that was playing without starting strong safety Jordan Lee, who missed the game with an injury – were stranded on islands and WSU’s usually strong defensive front couldn’t provide much push against Oregon’s fast-paced offensive scheme and the Ducks’ nationally reputed offensive line, which has yet to allow a sack this year. The Cougars made four red-zone stands in the first half. Second-year linebacker Francisco Mauigoa returned an interception 95 yards for a TD on the Ducks’ third series. WSU’s rushing defense, a staple of the team, allowed 178 yards.

“You’re not going to win a game not stopping the run and giving up that many explosive plays,” Dickert said. “There’s communication issues we had to address and we did, and I think they’re all fixable and correctable, and we’ll learn from that.”

WSU’s Air Raid passing game clicked for much of the day behind an exceptional effort from quarterback Cameron Ward, who completed 29 of his first 33 passes before an early fourth-quarter interception. The Cougars’ ground game managed only 53 yards on 25 carries.

“I felt like we were explosive on offense and we did keep them off-balance,” Dickert said when asked to assess the game film. “There were a lot of positives. There were times where we can sustain blocks a little bit better and finish. … You have to be able to run the ball to be balanced.”

Cal claimed a statement win, surging past Arizona 49-31 on Saturday in Berkeley, California.

Paced by breakout running back Jaydn Ott, the Golden Bears outscored the Wildcats 28-7 in the second half. Ott piled up 274 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries for an average of 14.4 yards per attempt. The true freshman from Chino, California, broke off runs of 73, 72 and 31 yards. Ott’s yardage total was the highest in a game by an FBS player this season.

Ott was named Pac-12 offensive player of the week on Monday. His showing against Arizona earned a perfect grade from Pro Football Focus – the first 99.9 grade for a college running back in six years.

“Their tailback is gonna be a budding star in this league, just as a freshman,” Dickert said.

Quarterback Jack Plummer, a senior Purdue transfer, passed 18 of 28 for 245 yards with three touchdowns and no turnovers. Led by former WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura, Arizona totaled 536 yards. But the Wildcat defense had no answers for Ott and de Laura threw two fourth-quarter interceptions to seal the result.

Scouting the matchup: The Bears are off to a solid start this year after a couple of forgettable seasons.

“They are a much-improved football team, just in general,” Dickert said. “That’s this league this year.

“This is a great league and you gotta bring your ‘A game’ each and every week. … We’re both in the same boat of really wanting to win and this will be a big Pac-12 game on Saturday.”

Cal’s defense shined in wins over FCS foe UC Davis and UNLV. The Bears came up just short on the road against Notre Dame, falling 24-17. Cal led the Fighting Irish 17-14 heading into the fourth quarter.

Cal’s passing defense had some slip-ups against Arizona, but the Bears’ ground game proved too powerful for the Wildcats to contain.

Ott ranks first in the Pac-12 and 11th nationally with 463 rushing yards. He is third among FBS tailbacks with 8.3 yards per carry. The 6-foot, 205-pounder is a “change of pace” for a Bear rushing attack that often relied on power-centric ball-carriers in recent memory, Dickert noted.

“There are a lot of things (Ott) creates mismatches for,” Dickert said. “They’ve been doing a really good job of using him in many ways.

“One guy just can’t tackle him. We gotta make sure we’re keeping him bottled up. … He’s hitting the big play. He has the ability to not just make people miss, but to take it the distance.”

Plummer is performing well in his first season with the Bears, who were quarterbacked by Chase Garbers for the past four years. Plummer has passed for 975 yards and eight touchdowns against two picks on a 61.2% completion rate.

“He’s got really good escapability and I think he’s good as a pocket passer,” Dickert said. “They’ve been running the ball extremely efficiently, and when you do that, you’re allowed to take the ball down the field off of play-action passes.”

The Bears’ offensive line ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in pass protection and run-blocking, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system. The group has given up 12 sacks – tied for 11th in the nation. After running into an elite Oregon O-line, the Cougars’ defensive front could be poised for a bounce back.

“Being more physical, that’ll be a big emphasis this week for our interior defensive line,” Dickert said.

WSU’s Air Raid passing game is starting to click.

“I think they’re playing the way we always felt they were capable of playing,” Dickert said.

Ward was bright last weekend and should be able to continue his upward trajectory against a Bears secondary that ranks 89th nationally with 250 passing yards allowed per game. Ward has passed for 1,102 yards – 25th in the FBS – with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions on a 69% completion rate. WSU’s up-tempo system emphasizes quick throws to playmakers in space, and several pass-catchers have flashed superstar potential early this season. But the Cougars’ vertical passing game has been underwhelming so far.

“We’re getting there and I think that’s an area we can improve on,” Dickert said.

Cal’s rushing defense ranks 59th in the FBS with 131 yards yielded per game. The Bears’ front seven is arguably the team’s strong suit. The unit is paced by a preseason All-Pac-12 first-team pick in linebacker Jackson Sirmon, a Washington transfer. The Cougars’ ground game is averaging 96.8 yards per contest – last in the Pac-12.

“Stopping the run is where it always starts with Cal,” Dickert said.

What happened last time? The Cougars’ defense spearheaded a comfortable 21-6 win on Oct. 2, 2021, in Berkeley – WSU’s first road victory over Cal since 2013. WSU kept the Bears off the scoreboard after the first quarter and the Cougars’ offense played a clean game. In the first quarter, WSU receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. twisted his body in the air and came down with a one-handed touchdown catch that was named the No. 1 play of the day on SportsCenter Top 10. WSU and Cal have traded wins every season over the past six years. The Cougars haven’t lost to the Bears in Pullman since a 60-59 stunner in 2014. Cal has a 48-29-5 lead in the series.

Things to know:

1. Lee was a “game-time decision” against Oregon, Dickert said. The senior Nevada transfer had missed a Sept. 17 game against Colorado State after sustaining an injury at Wisconsin the week prior. Lee suited up for warmups on Saturday but the Cougars’ coaches determined he was not ready to take the field. Dickert is “hopeful (Lee) can return this week.” With Lee out of the lineup against Oregon, WSU’s inexperience in the secondary showed.

2. WSU and Cal are statistically identical in scoring offense (30 points per game) and scoring defense (20.5 ppg). The Cougs and Bears rank 42nd nationally in scoring defense and 75th nationally in scoring defense.

3. The Cougars and Bears are led by defensive-minded head coaches in Dickert, WSU’s first-year boss, and Justin Wilcox – the sixth-year coach at Cal. Dickert said the two teams field comparable defensive schemes, featuring creative pressure packages and sound defensive front play.

“Because we’re similar, we scout them a lot and use them in a lot of crossover tape (when the Cougars are preparing for other opponents),” Dickert said.

Fifth-year Bears defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon is a native of Walla Walla.

4. WSU defensive tackle Christian Mejia has been productive for the Cougars this season 11 tackles, half a sack), but he had more important obligations than football on Saturday. His wife, Lajoie, went into labor. Mejia, now a father, will suit up for the Cougars against Cal.

“Christian was at our meeting this morning. We’re really excited for him,” Dickert said. “He had that look in his eyes of a new father. I’ve been there.”

Mejia informed his coaches early Saturday morning that he’d need to miss the Oregon game.

“That’s absolutely, 100% where he needed to be,” Dickert said.

5. After recording seven tackles for loss against the Ducks, the Cougars’ defense leads the country in TFLs (38). Outside linebacker Daiyan Henley paces the Pac-12 and is fourth nationally with 8.5 TFLs. Outside receiver Donovan Ollie is second in the conference with 24 receptions. He leads the Cougars in catches and receiving yards (263).

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