Gameday Central: Defending Wazzu

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This isn't the same offense Mike Leach ran in Lubbock, Tex., not by a long shot.

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Yes, the scheme may look the same, the formations identical and the principles consistent, but this offense is not anywhere near as productive as Leach's Texas Tech squads of years past.
"We always want to learn as much as possible as early as possible, and we've got a lot of young guys," Leach said earlier this week. "I knew there were going to be a lot of new faces, that haven't played. Our offensive line hadn't played alongside each other a lot before this year, some didn't even play at all. I knew that it was going to be a work in progress, but we just have to continue to work and get better."
While Washington State is the third most prolific passing offense in the league -- averaging 312.0 yards per game -- the Cougars are No. 9 in the Pac-12 in total offense, 11th in scoring offense and 10th in passer efficiency. But, tonight, they'll be going up against a California which is No. 6 in the Pac-12 in passing defense -- allowing 251.5 yards per game - and which is ranked 10th in the league in passer efficiency defense, allowing opposing signal-callers to post a 133.4 rating.
Washington State is, however, dead last in the conference in turnover margin (-5) and has thrown a conference-worst 12 picks.
"I think guys make plays on the ball, and teams have had people in the right spots at the right times," said Bears defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "The quarterbacks have made a lot of good throws, as well."
Last week, Washington State failed to find the end zone for the second time this season. This evening, Leach will send redshirt sophomore Connor Halliday to the line to start under center, who is sixth in the Pac-12 with 256.8 yards per game through the air, but is also dead last in the conference in completion percentage (105-for-196) and interceptions thrown (nine), while the Cougars as a team have thrown the most picks in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Halliday is 11th in the league in passer efficiency (114.6), and as is typical with Leach offenses, doesn't have a significant run game to support him. Washington State has rushed the fewest times of any FBS team this season, and is second-to-last in rushing yards. The Cougars have the fourth-fewest rushing touchdowns, the second-worst rushing yards per attempt average.
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The Washington State offense figures to throw the ball quite a bit this evening, but despite some of his drawbacks in coverage, dynamic safety Avery Sebastian will still start opposite senior Josh Hill in the middle of the Bears defense.
"Avery's a guy that's obviously showed us that he can play, so he's going to be out there and he's a big part of what we do every week," Pendergast said. "He will play coverage and he will play the deep part of the field and he will play up around the line of scrimmage. He's part of our package, and we'll find ways to utilize his skill set."
With the propensity for Leach to run four wide receivers on any given play, it would stand to reason that Cal will be in nickel more often than not, which may necessitate having both Kameron Jackson -- last week's Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after his three picks against UCLA -- and Marc Anthony -- if healthy - being on the field at the same time.
"I expect to get some playing time," Jackson said this week. "[The offense is] kind of similar to UCLA. We're going to keep doing what we doing."
What the Cougars don't do nearly as often as the Bruins, though, is run the quarterback. Halliday has 15 rushing attempts for -91 yards, and senior Jeff Tuel has 15 rushes for -41, largely thanks to the fact that the Cougars offensive line has allowed 21 sacks -- third-worst in the conference.
"They throw the ball a lot," Pendergast said. "Going back to coach Leach's days at Texas Tech, they like to spread the ball around and use all areas of the field. I expect them to do what they do ... You always got to be prepared for the quarterback. Once in a while, he'll pull it down. Obviously, it's in their package because you do have the spread-zone scheme to kind of keep you honest, but you've just got to be ready for it and ready to tackle."
While Washington State doesn't use their tailbacks traditionally, there are keys that the inside linebackers can read off of the tailbacks to help them carve up the protection.
"They are different in a couple of their reads. Their tailback reads are different than conventional spread teams," said redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Nick Forbes, who's become one of the elder statesmen of the linebacking corps which features sophomore outside backer Chris McCain, redshirt freshman outside backer Brennan Scarlett and redshirt freshman inside linebacker Jalen Jefferson. "It's going to come back to a fundamental game and improving upon -- not just trying to do the same as -- last week, improving on fundamental techniques, what you're keying and the reactions you make off of your reads. It's going to be that kind of game. It could be very boring if everybody reads it the way they should."
Boring, mundane, ho-hum - that's what the linebackers want out of tonight's game.
"If you can execute the game plan and execute your job, it will be a lot of quick outs, a lot of zone reads that, if everybody's where they should be and fit right, you'll see a lot of the same plays, because that style of offense tries to wear you down until you make mistakes. Hopefully we can keep it boring. Boring would be good. I'm fine with that," Forbes laughed.
Forbes is tied for 23rd in the Pac-12 with 39 tackles - 6.5 per game - while Jefferson ranks sixth on the team with 33 stops, including 0.5 TFL. Jefferson's also added one pass break-up and one QB hurry. Forbes is Cal's third-leading tackler, also chipping in 2.0 TFL and one sack, to go along with two break-ups, one hurry, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble and one blocked kick.
Scarlett -- who will play his second week with a club cast on his hand -- has 31 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, one break-up, one hurry and one forced fumble on the year, while McCain has 27 stops, a team-leading 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks and three QB hurries.
"We could be special, but it all comes down to how much work you're going to put in to it," Forbes said. "Potential is nothing, unless you attain it. It is good, because all these guys are young and they're hungry, but we're looking to get better. None of the guys are satisfied with where they are right now, and everyone wants to improve. It's not really necessarily looking at the future; it's more looking at now. We've got to pick it up. We've got to step up. We're going to be young and be out there, we've got to play as if it were our last year."
In years past, screens and quick outs were a hallmark of Leach's offenses with the Red Raiders, with the middle screen in particular being utilized to great effect by current San Francisco 49er wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Now, it will be the Cougars' star junior wide out -- Marquess Wilson -- catching those passes and making life hard on the middle of the Cal defense.
"He's a very talented player," Pendergast said. "He catches the ball at all levels of the field - intermediate, deep - he's a big guy. He'll go up and catch the ball. Even dating back to my first year, two years ago, they threw the ball up to him a lot deep, and he's a big-time threat, so you've got to be alert of where he is at all times."
Wilson is ninth in the league in receptions per game (5.7) and is fifth in receiving yards per game (92.2).
"I didn't watch any Texas Tech film, but they do utilize him on that particular play, and there's other guys. They like that play quite a bit," Pendergast said of the middle screen. "They'll move him around. He's predominantly been outside, but they will put him in some different spots. It's a very advanced passing game, so they want to try and find mismatches where they think they can utilize their skill."
The Cougars do, however, have weapons besides Wilson, in Gabe Marks (11th in the league in receiving yards per game with 63.2) and Isiah Myers (11th in receptions per game with 4.8).
The Cal defense clutched up in a big way last week against UCLA, allowing just two touchdowns in five red zone trips. The Bears have quietly been moving up in the world in terms of red zone defense, ranking No. 3 in the Pac-12 in that regard, holding opponents to a 73.1-percent success rate on drives down inside their own 20. Of the 26 red zone drives Cal has faced, 19 have ended in points, with 14 touchdowns (11 passing, three rushing) and five field goals.
"The only thing that was different was that we just executed better," Fores said. "There are still a lot of plays on tape that we kind of left out there that they were able to execute on us, but there were more things done right, this time around, versus that kind of offense."
Washington State is tied with Utah for dead last in the league in red zone offense, succeeding in putting points on the board 66.7 percent of the time. The Cougars have scored eight touchdowns, with three coming via the rush and five coming through the air inside the 20, though they have lost one fumble down deep and turned the ball over on downs twice. The Bears have forced three picks and one turnover on downs on drives in the red zone this season.
The big key will be to get off the field on third down. The Bears held the Bruins to 8-of-16 in those situations last week, but is still 11th in the conference in third down defense (46.6 percent conversion). Washington State is sixth in the Pac-12 third-down conversion success (36.3 percent).
"As always, you like to be able to convert first downs and keep the defense on the field, and to have [our] defense get off the field," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "That keeps the defense off the field, as well -- not allowing third-down conversions. It all goes hand-in-hand."