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Sports >  WSU football

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

Sept. 30, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 30, 2022 at 6:22 p.m.

Story of the game …

Washington State’s defense had its first shaky showing of the season last week in a loss to Oregon. Cal’s offense burst onto the scene last week, when freshman tailback Jaydn Ott had the most productive rushing day of any player in the nation this season during a win over Arizona.

One side is looking for a bounce-back performance. The other would like nothing more than to duplicate its last performance.

WSU (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) and Cal (3-1, 1-0) are jockeying for early positioning in the Pac-12 race . The Cougars started hot this year, then hit a hurdle in the course, falling 44-41 against Oregon. For WSU to get back on track, rebounding with a homecoming win is crucial.

Cal entered the mix, claiming a surprisingly lopsided decision against an improved Arizona team. The Bears opened their season with less-convincing victories against lower-level opponents before losing a tight game at Notre Dame. For Cal, a win on the road over a solid WSU team – which is four spots outside of the AP Top 25 rankings – would provide a major boost in momentum and reputation.

The Cougars will close their three-game homestand when they host the Golden Bears at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field.

When Washington State has the ball …

The Cougars’ Air Raid offense is showing signs of progress each week. The next steps? Developing a downfield passing game and finding consistency on the ground.

WSU quarterback Cameron Ward has attempted just 13 passes (out of 151 total) that traveled 20-plus yards through the air, completing six. Pressure often forces Ward to abandon deep balls.

“We gotta be able to buy time and take the ball down the field, and pick and choose our spots,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said. “It’s something we’re continually talking about. It’s part of the offense and it’s been a part of the Air Raid for a long time. I think that’s an area we can improve on.”

The Cougars’ passing game has been mostly sharp in the short and intermediate game, on quick out-routes and crossing patterns. But the Cougars aim to boost their aerial attack.

They might tinker with a new-look receiver group, which includes three slotbacks on the field at the same time – longtime standout Renard Bell, junior Lincoln Victor and Robert Ferrel, who impressed in the last two games after missing WSU’s preseason and first two contests with an injury. The Cougars could shift Victor to outside receiver in hopes of adding an extra speed element on downfield routes, “to try to maybe stretch the field a little bit and get a quicker guy on the outside,” offensive coordinator Eric Morris said.

“Rob has given us another dimension to the offense,” Dickert added.

Cal’s defense takes pride in its ability to stop the run game. The Cougars were held to about 50 rushing yards against Oregon and Wisconsin. WSU ranks last in the Pac-12 in rushing attempts (100) and yards per game (96.8). Cal is conceding over 5 yards per rushing play. Can the Cougars establish a groove on the ground?

“(Cal) is physical up front and they’re being a little bit more multiple this season in what they do with pressure packages,” Dickert said. “Stopping the run defensively is where it always starts with Cal.”

The Bears are giving up 250 yards through the air per game, but their pass coverage ranks 50th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Cal’s secondary will have its hands full against a passing game that’s starting to click, and a QB who has proven himself adept at extending plays in the pocket.

Ward picked apart Oregon’s secondary for much of the day last weekend, completing 77% of his passes for 375 yards. The Bears use linebacker blitzes regularly. That could leave them vulnerable in their shallow pass coverage.

“I think Cam has one of the best pocket presences I’ve been around,” Dickert said. “He’s probably scrambled more than we’d like, but he’s also been very productive doing it. … He has some magic with what he does. Moving around with the pocket, he’s created a lot of great, explosive plays. That’s part of his game and what makes him so exciting.”

WSU will need to show improvements in its pass protection. The Cougars’ offensive line has permitted 14 sacks. Only five teams in the nation have allowed more.

When Cal has the ball …

The Golden Bears’ offense is more dynamic than the one that managed just six points in a loss to WSU last season.

Cal struck gold this offseason on the recruiting trail, signing a premier running back.

Through four games in his collegiate career, Ott has produced 463 rushing yards – 11th in the nation – on 56 carries. He ranks third in the FBS with 8.27 yards per attempt and is the top-graded tailback in all of Power Five, according to Pro Football Focus’ performance metrics. The 6-foot, 205-pounder piled up 275 yards and three TDs on just 19 rushes in the Bears’ runaway victory over Arizona last weekend.

“With running backs like that who are building on confidence from last week, it’s going to be important to shut that down early in the game,” WSU edge rusher Brennan Jackson said. “We can’t let him get comfortable. He’s a great downhill runner. He’s got some elusiveness and really good top-end speed. … We can’t let him open up in the lane and we need to make sure we get him in the backfield and really start swarming on him early.”

The Cougars yielded a season-worst 178 rushing yards against Oregon last weekend. WSU’s defensive front has otherwise fared well in containing tailbacks and should be expected to offer more resistance against Ott than Arizona did. WSU leads the nation in tackles for loss (38).

Ott is finding lanes, but Cal’s offensive line hasn’t been stellar this season. The Bears rank in the bottom 10 nationally in run-blocking efficiency and pass protection, per PFF’s grading system. Cal has allowed 12 sacks – tied for 112th nationally.

Senior transfer quarterback Jack Plummer has been efficient for the Bears, who strive for balance on offense. A 6-foot-5 pocket passer, Plummer is accurate on short routes and takes the occasional shot downfield toward Jeremiah Hunter and J. Michael Sturdivant, who have combined for 530 yards and four touchdowns on 38 catches.

“They’ve been running the ball extremely efficiently, and when you do that, you’re allowed to take the ball down the field on play-action passes,” Dickert said.

The Cougars, a top-five team nationally in sacks (14), are looking for a bounce-back performance after failing to muster a sack against the Ducks, who haven’t allowed a sack this year.

“We gotta be better with a four-man pass rush,” Dickert said. “Some of those (sack) numbers come off of pressure and a lot of different people are getting those sacks, which is a good thing … but our four-man pass rush has got to be better.”

Oregon exploited WSU’s secondary last weekend, piling up 446 passing yards and connecting on plenty of deep shots. The Cougars are “hopeful” that veteran strong safety Jordan Lee will return to the lineup after spending the past two weeks sidelined with an injury.

Notable

WSU and Cal enter with identical statistical marks in scoring offense (30 ppg) and scoring defense (20.5 ppg).

The Cougars and Bears are led by defensive-minded head coaches in Dickert and Justin Wilcox, Cal’s sixth-year leader. The teams’ defensive schemes and strengths are comparable, Dickert noted.

“Because we’re similar, we scout them a lot and use them in a lot of crossover tape,” Dickert said.

The teams have taken turns beating each other over the past six meetings.

“Cal’s always a team you can’t overlook,” Victor said.

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