PULLMAN – Here is what to watch for when Washington State visits California on Saturday afternoon.
When Cal has the ball …
During the last month, Cal’s offense has operated like a machine, which might have something to do with coaches’ decision to settle on starting quarterback Fernando Mendoza, a redshirt freshman. Since he took over in early October, he’s led the Golden Bears to point totals of 40, 14, 49 and 19.
All those games were losses. The Golden Bears have lost four straight, a streak that started in Mendoza’s first game: 52-40 to Oregon State; 34-14 to Utah; 50-49 to USC; and 63-19 to Oregon. That’s about as tough a stretch of schedule as you’ll find in the Pac-12, though, so perhaps those losses can be understood.
What’s more interesting in those games is how the Golden Bears’ offense has fared. Mendoza, a 6-foot-5 quarterback, has lots of options at his disposal: 6-1 receiver Taj Davis, 6-4 wideout Trond Grizzell, 6-2 Jeremiah Hunter, plus running back Jaydn Ott, a smaller back who hasn’t caught more than four passes in a game this season.
“They have big long trees at wide receiver and they’re willing to take the ball down the field and go get it,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “So they’ve been extremely scary on that side of the ball.”
Cal’s run game is also scary. Ott has rushed for 80-plus yards in four of his past five games. On two of those occasions, he’s cleared the century mark, logging 153 yards against USC and 165 against Arizona State. Backup Isaiah Ifanse hasn’t had many carries in either of the past two weeks, so much of the reason Cal ranks fourth in Pro Football Focus’ Pac-12 run offense grades is thanks to Ott.
The Cougars will have to stop the run to force Mendoza to pass, which is how they can best unlock edge rushers Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr., the latter of whom is searching for his first sack since WSU’s win over Wisconsin in September. Zoom out and WSU hasn’t stopped the run much, but zoom in and you get a different story.
In the Cougars’ last game, a loss to Stanford last week, their defense permitted just 75 rushing yards.
Jackson burst through the line of scrimmage for a key fourth-down stop, and in his second career start, redshirt freshman Buddah Al-Uqdah looked solid.
The better news for WSU is that a few injured players might be returning. Cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, who has missed the past two games with an undisclosed soft-tissue injury, will return Saturday, Dickert said on the radio Thursday night.
That might not be a catch-all solution for the Cougars’ defense, but it’s a start.
When Washington State has the ball …
The good news for the Cougars’ offense: Cal’s defense has yielded 50-plus points in three of its past four games.
The bad news: That kind of trend didn’t help WSU’s offense last week, when the Cougars managed just seven points against Stanford, which had given up 40-plus points in each of its previous four games.
Such is life for Washington State’s offense, which has turned into an enigma. The Cougars have shown all season they can throw the ball with anyone, ranking second nationwide in passing offense with 335.7 yards per game, but they’ve also displayed concerning inconsistency. When defenses have dropped into coverage-heavy schemes, WSU hasn’t had many answers.
Whether Cal plays that way may swing things. That’s how Stanford beat Washington State. Ever since they lost to UCLA, which played that defense, the Cougars have looked hapless against it.
The answer has always been to run the ball. Cal’s defense has struggled to defend that – so much so that the Bears rank last in the Pac-12 in run defense, according to PFF. Overall, they rank second to last in defense.
To take advantage, Washington State might need something extra out of Djouvensky Schlenbaker, a redshirt freshman who made his first start last week. As starter Nakia Watson remains limited by a lower-body injury and impromptu backup Dylan Paine is questionable with a high-ankle sprain, Schlenbaker has taken center stage.
His job has proven vital. The only way for the Cougars to force defenses to come up closer to the line of scrimmage, thereby opening up their passing game, is to run the ball. For what it’s worth, Dickert has liked what he’s seen out of Schlenbaker, who finished with 34 yards on 13 carries last week.
“Djouvensky was very decisive and downhill, and I think that’s what we’ve been missing a little bit at that position,” Dickert said. “He just does it with max capacity, max effort. And he executes the best he can. Now, sometimes there’s a little bit of patience and feel – so, ‘Hey, I can make this back cut, and I can’t just be running downhill every time.’ But he’s behind his pads. He’s being physical, and I think he’s playing with max energy, which is awesome to see.”