Week in and week out, Cal football (5-3, 2-3) has prepared for each matchup with a consistent mindset: Treat each competitor as a faceless opponent.
After Cal’s 12-10 upset win over Washington last Saturday, not only were the Huskies stripped of their No. 15 ranking, but they were sent packing out of the top-25 national rankings. Washington was far from a faceless opponent for most, and the win was huge for Cal coaches and players alike.
But beyond the hoopla of the high-stakes matchup, the Bears made it very clear that they expected to win. Cal will take its undeviating grit into a fundamentally different game this weekend, as it seeks to knock off No. 8 Washington State on the road.
“We’re trying to get another upset — not even an upset, in my opinion,” said sophomore wide receiver Jeremiah Hawkins.
Should Cal’s stellar defense manage to stifle the No. 1 passing offense in the nation and the No. 1 team in the Pac-12, it would, in fact, be regarded as an upset.
The Cougars’ all-too-efficient offense is averaging 405.4 passing yards per game, orchestrated by graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew. The former junior college and East Carolina product has been a gunslinging machine for WSU, totaling a nation-leading 3,183 passing yards through Oct. 30.
“(We’re) playing against a quarterback who is playing as good as anybody in the country,” said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
Part of what makes WSU’s offense run as smoothly as it does is Minshew’s mobility in the pocket, aided by protection from his big men up front; through nearly 600 plays in 2018, Minshew has only been sacked six times. With minimal gaps to rush the passer, Cal’s defensive line must look to anchor the field, starting with batting passes and mirroring Minshew’s ball hand.
In addition to WSU’s physical offensive line, Minshew has a plethora of weapons to target in an offense that has seen seven players each haul in at least 23 passes. The Cougars’ well-rounded offense spreads from leading wide receiver Davontavean “Tay” Martin, who has 51 receptions for 478 yards, to speedy dual-threat running backs such as James Williams, who has 48 catches of his own.
Cal’s secondary has been one of the most physical and successful elements of its play thus far, and the Bears are sure to eat up the challenge they will be facing in Pullman, Washington.
“One of our biggest goals this week is not letting them score on the first drive,” said Cal redshirt junior defensive lineman Luc Bequette.
In 2017, Cal pulled off a massive 37-3 uprooting of No. 8 WSU that was fueled by the Bears’ defense, which put together a stat line of nine sacks, five interceptions and two forced fumbles. The Cougars hold the same ranking entering Saturday’s showdown. Although this time around both the Bears’ and the Cougars’ offenses look remarkably different, the matchup is, again, going to be a game won on the defensive side.
After finding itself in shambles in a failing two-man system, Cal’s offense has managed to find a better rhythm behind redshirt freshman Chase Garbers. In the win, Garbers not only played with an edge against Washington, but he played smart and displayed huge potential and growth compared to his play just a few weeks ago.
“Having Chase in there, I kind of see sort of the same composure that Jared (Goff) had,” said redshirt senior offensive lineman Addison Ooms. “Nothing really fazes him.”
Cal held its own against a strong Washington defense last weekend, but the Bears struggled to finish and make plays plays in the red zone, a facet of their game that they must improve upon against a WSU team that averages more than 40 points per contest.
While Cal is seemingly out of the storm of its three-game losing streak, in recent history, the program’s downfall has been its failure to string together enough significant wins to be taken seriously in the football world.
“I know a lot of teams that are coming off of big wins — they are nonchalant and get complacent at times … but I feel like we are trying to give it to them again,” Hawkins said.