November 10, 2023
Cal defense seeks a break, and here comes struggling Washington State
BERKELEY — As the month of October began, the Football prospects for both Cal and Washington State seemed promising, although the Cougars’ horizons were brighter still. Cal was 3-2 overall and 1-1 in Pac-12 play, coming off a home victory over Arizona State. WSU was 4-0, already the owner of wins over Wisconsin and Oregon State, ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25 and the talk of college football. When they take the field against each other on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, the Bears and Cougars will be fighting for their postseason lives and wondering what hit them in October. Cal (3-6, 1-5) has lost four in a row, surrendering 199 points to Oregon State, Utah, USC and Oregon — all Top 25 teams when they kicked off. WSU (4-5, 1-5) has dropped five in a row, its offense substantially diminished by a run game averaging just 39 yards during the losing streak. The Cougars totaled 4 yards rushing in a last week to a Stanford team that had given up at least 40 points to its four previous foes. Tied for last place in the Pac-12, along with Colorado and ASU, the Bears need to sweep their final three games to become bowl-eligible. The Cougars need two of three, but their season-ending game at unbeaten No. 5 Washington will be a taller order so their margin for error is not much greater. Cal senior safety Craig Woodson, who has 27 tackles over the past two games, was asked if he can explain what has happened to a defense that has generally been quite good in recent years. “I’m not too sure,” he admitted. “We have the guys capable of making the routine plays. It’s definitely disappointing, knowing we had expectations going into every game to put our best performance on display.” Cal has played the past three games without All-Pac-12 inside linebacker Jackson Sirmon, out for the season with a torn biceps muscle. Kaleb Elarms-Orr, who is second in the conference in tackles, did not play in the Bears’ last week and is questionable for today. Injuries are no excuse, Woodson said, and neither is the fact that Pac-12 offenses are perhaps more potent than ever. Washington, USC and Oregon all are ranked among the nation’s top four scoring teams. Just five years ago, the Bears gave up fewer points over their 13-game schedule than they have in six Pac-12 games this season. For defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, that means adjusting reasonable goals. “I’m having to continually reassess what my baseline has been to what we’re currently facing,” he said. The Cougars are averaging barely 16 points the past five games as defenses load up in the secondary to slow quarterback Cameron Ward. For the most part, it has worked: Ward completed 75 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions over the first four games, then 65 percent with four TDs and four picks in the past five. Sirmon is reluctant to make an extreme scheme change for the Cougars. “My experience is you plan for certain things, but every game unfolds itself in an unpredictable way,” he said. “The way we’re going to approach it is we need to have integrity (against) both the run and the pass.” Woodson believes the Bears can get it done. Related Articles “We’re all just focused on winning these last three games, trying to get into a bowl game,” he said. “Flush the mistakes from the past and focus on what we can control now.” Redshirt freshman quarterback Fernando Mendoza shares that confidence. “This is huge,” he said. “We’ve had the analogy this week that we’re going to burn the boats. That means that we’re going to be all-in this week. I can’t wait for Saturday — it’s going to be a great showing for us.” With Mendoza as its starter, Cal has totaled 89 points over two home games, capturing the attention of WSU coach Jake Dickert. “I think he completely changed their offense,” Dickert said. “Now they can really throw the RPO game like they want to. He has enough escape ability, and they have big long trees at wide receiver and they’re willing to take the ball down the field and go get it. “So they’ve been extremely scary on that side of the ball.” Not so much on the other side.
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