Many people who follow the Washington State program expect the Cougars to quell their remaining self-doubts on defense and play their best football during the next three weeks.
They’re favored by a touchdown against California, and if victorious they’ll likely be favored in subsequent games against Stanford and Oregon State.
But they still need to prove themselves in certain ways — and not just on defense.
For example, their game at 4 p.m. today in Berkeley, Calif. (Pac-12 Network), comes against a Cal program that has held them to a combined 22 points in their past two matchups.
Washington State (4-4, 1-4) seeks its first Pac-12 road win of the year, while the Bears (4-4, 1-4) try to snap a four-game losing streak.
The game will be a homecoming and an intriguing challenge for the Cougars’ prolific first-year starter at quarterback, Anthony Gordon, who will try to move the ball better against the Bears than predecessors Luke Falk and Gardner Minshew did.
“They do some great things over there,” Gordon said. “They’re well-coached, they’ve got some good athletes and they get the most out of each of their players. They’re always in the right spot.
“Going against a good defense like this is always a challenge, always something that’s fun. Looking forward to it throughout the week, especially back in the Bay Area.”
Gordon grew up in Pacifica, Calif., 25 miles southwest of Berkeley, and was a fan of Cal’s Bay Area rival, Stanford. He expects “most of the town of Pacifica” to attend the game.
The Cougars’ most recent trip to Berkeley resulted in one of their most frustrating games of recent years, a 37-3 loss in smoky conditions that sullied their 6-0 record and saw their Air Raid offense commit seven turnovers. The ball repeatedly took strange bounces, partly because Falk’s throwing windows were narrow and tended to shut quickly.
A year later at Pullman, Wazzu needed Minshew’s tie-breaking 10-yard touchdown pass to Easop Winston Jr. with 32 seconds left to edge the Bears 19-13.
In other words, Cal coach Justin Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter know how to scheme against the Air Raid, and their athletes are good enough to execute their plan.
Cougars coach Mike Leach said the Bears have held his offense in check “for the same reason they’ve been able to hold everybody else in check the last two seasons — because they have a good defense.”
The Cougars’ own D hopes to continue recovering from the resignation of coordinator Tracy Claeys five weeks ago. They’re facing an injury-riddled Cal team that hasn’t mustered more than 17 points in any game since September and probably will give UCLA transfer Devon Modster his third career start at quarterback.
In some ways, Gordon’s counterpart in this game perhaps isn’t Cal’s quarterback but Cal’s star inside linebacker, 6-foot-3, 235-pound senior Evan Weaver, the nation’s leading tackler.
Whereas Gordon is a Bay Area guy playing for an Inland Northwest school, Weaver is an Inland Northwest guy (he went to Gonzaga Prep in Spokane) thriving in the Bay Area.
“He’s long out there, so I maybe need to be smarter with some throws,” Gordon acknowledged. “I’m aware he’s one of the top players in the country at his position, so I’m going to be conscious of where’s at.
“But we also aren’t scared of him. We’re going to execute our game plan accordingly.”
Dale Grummert may be reached at email@example.com or (208) 848-2290.