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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State rewind: Against Cal, Cougs’ defense porous in the red zone once again

California tight end Jack Endries prepares to haul in a 6-yard first-quarter touchdown pass against Washington State during Saturday’s Pac-12 game at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif.  (JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO)

PULLMAN – Not long after his Washington State club took its sixth straight loss, a 42-39 setback to Cal on Saturday, Jake Dickert made a note about the Golden Bears’ offense – and how different it looked than what he was expecting.

“Coming into this game, the last three weeks, they only ran 12 personnel I think 15 times,” Dickert said. “They ran it every play this week.”

Twelve personnel means the offense has one running back, two tight ends and two receivers on the field at the same time. Since quarterback Fernando Mendoza took over the reins a few weeks ago, the Golden Bears spread their offense out, putting four receivers out there and letting Mendoza spin it.

Except Cal realized something about Washington State and its defense: It has a really tough time stopping the run, moreso than most teams in the Pac-12. So Cal eschewed finesse for beef, and WSU couldn’t do much to stop it, letting running back Jaydn Ott rattle off 167 yards and a touchdown on his own.

The proof was on the field. It was also in the numbers. For the game, Mendoza threw just 21 passes, happy to let Ott rumble for chunk gains. Some of those numbers are skewed because the Golden Bears’ defense scored two touchdowns, taking away two drives from Mendoza and the Cal offense – but now for the third time in four games, WSU’s opponent has thrown 26 passes or fewer.

That isn’t just teams sticking to the run because that’s they’re style. They’re doing it because the Cougars aren’t providing much resistance.

The best evidence on Saturday came in the fourth quarter, right after Washington State kicker Dean Janikowski missed a 42-yarder, one of two costly misfires on the afternoon. Cal took over at its own 25. In five plays, all rushes from Ott, the Golden Bears covered 75 yards for a touchdown. WSU couldn’t stop Ott from breaking a 52-yarder, and that was that.

“We had to adjust on the fly,” Dickert said. “I liked our halftime adjustments. But once again that big run kinda crushed us, and red-zone defense wasn’t there.”

That’s the other topic on the Cougs’ defense that bears examining: Their woes in the red zone. On Saturday, the Golden Bears converted 4 of 4 chances, all touchdowns. On one, they started at the Cougs’ 19, which is a tough spot for the visitors. But check out where Cal’s other three scoring drives started: own 35, own 16, own 25.

For WSU, that wouldn’t be so concerning if it happened in a vacuum. Instead, it’s a trend.

Washington State ranks 108th nationally in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score on 35 of 39 red-zone tries – or nearly 90%. Stanford converted 2 of its 3 chances against WSU. Arizona State converted 5 of 5. Oregon went 4 for 4. Arizona made good on 5 of 5. UCLA hit on 4 of 7, and combine that with Stanford’s one missed opportunity and you get all four of the Cougs’ stops in the red zone this season.

It’s hard to play good defense in the red zone. The teams who do it best only get stops around 65-70% of the time. Heck, the two Pac-12 teams who rank highest in that department, Arizona and Washington, do it 75% and 80% of the time, respectively.

But Washington State has lost six straight. To make a bowl game, the Cougs need to beat Colorado on Friday night, then pull off an enormous upset of Washington in the Apple Cup. They’ll have to start producing results soon, not just talking about them.

“I think there was some good things,” Dickert said of his group’s defense, “but you gotta be able to hold a good offense to field goal opportunities. Even the sudden change – we go on for on a sudden change and regardless of the situation or circumstance, you gotta be able to bow up late in the red zone. And that’s what we weren’t able to do.

“I mean, yardage and different things that you look at seems OK, but at the end of the day, it’s still (42) points, however it happened. If you get put in a short field, we gotta find a way to get a stop and get them in a field goal opportunity.”

On Saturday, it wasn’t all bad for Washington State’s defense, though. The Cougs supplied stops on five of the Golden Bears’ final six drives. One was a turnover, a fumble forced by linebacker Kyle Thornton and recovered by safety Sam Lockett, and the next two were three-and-outs, which paved the way for the WSU offense’s 15-point surge to draw within three.

On those series, Washington State’s run defense looked miles better. On the final one, the Cougs’ defense had to prevent the Golden Bears from getting a first down, otherwise it was game over, and they did just that. They stuffed Ott and, on third down, forced Mendoza to throw – and his pass fell incomplete.

WSU’s offense couldn’t take advantage. Janikowski’s two misses really hurt. The Cougs’ defense came away from this loss with a few positive things to build on, but they will need to be better in the red zone to have any chance at salvaging this season.