The Washington State Cougars are in a pretty interesting spot on Friday night when they head down to Berkeley to take on the Cal Golden Bears for a little #Pac12AfterDark action. Some crazy things can happen when the sun sets and the Pac-12 is in action and that could very well be the case here this week with the heavily-favored Cougars at California Memorial Stadium. Some shops, including Bovada Sportsbook, have dug in at Washington State -14, but most of them are sitting at 13.5 three days in advance of the game.
Washington State has been very kind to bettors since the overtime win over Boise State. The Cougars are a perfect 6-0 straight up and ride a four-game ATS win streak into this one. That stretch includes wins over USC and Oregon, which have gotten a lot of buzz in the sports media world. Cal was humbled last week by Washington and has now dropped two straight ATS and three straight in the win-loss column. After starting 3-0 against North Carolina, Weber State, and Ole Miss, things have gone a bit downhill for Justin Wilcox’s team.
Defending Washington State is not easy. We already know that. This season, the Cougars have racked up 475 yards per game on six yards per play. Most of the damage is done through the air in the Mike Leach Air Raid offense and he has the right gunslinger at the helm in Luke Falk. Falk has thrown for exactly 2,000 yards on the season with a 19/2 TD/INT ratio on 262 attempts. He has completed 71.2 percent of his throws. The Cougars have 10.4 yards per reception and have spread the ball around a ton, as they always do. Six players have at least 20 receptions and seven players have caught a touchdown. Jamal Morrow has rushed for 7.8 yards per carry and James Williams has been a very good weapon out of the backfield with four yards per carry on 58 tries and 41 receptions to lead the team in that category. With some turnover at the wide receiver position from last year’s team, Williams’s sophomore season has been a godsend for Leach and the offense.
The stunning thing about this Wazzu team is how well the defense has played. Through six games, the Cougars have held the opposition to just 275 yards per game and just 4.5 yards per play. The Cougars are tied for fifth in takeaways with 15 and have a very hot name on the coaching market in Alex Grinch. When Grinch took over in 2015, he inherited a defense that had allowed 38.6 points per game and 442 yards per contest. This defense has gotten progressively better over the last three years and he’ll find himself at a much bigger job as a DC or maybe as a Group of Five HC sometime soon. It doesn’t hurt to have a lot of upperclassmen that have been with Grinch for three years, but you have to respect what this defense is doing.
This is a game with a classic case of perception bias. Washington State had that win that everybody saw over USC. They beat a severely watered-down Oregon team. Prior to that, the Cougars hadn’t really played anybody and struggled badly with a mediocre Boise State team. Cal’s early season wins have been replaced by recent conference losses. It looks bad. Cal has been outscored 37.7-17 in conference play. But, a lot of that has to do with the offense, which has managed just 3.7 yards per play in Pac-12 action and had only managed 4.8 yards per play this season. Ross Bowers has a 55.9 percent completion percentage with a 9/8 TD/INT ratio. Patrick Laird has taken over as the feature back for Tre Watson and has been effective with 6.2 yards per carry on 65 tries. The problem is that Bowers, who is a first-time starter, has been sacked 22 times to bring down Cal’s rushing numbers. Cal has 13 takeaways, but 14 giveaways. For first-year head coach Justin Wilcox, that has been the team’s biggest problem. Only BYU, Rice, Oregon State, and San Jose State have more turnovers.
When you consider the team’s turnover issues, this defense deserves more than a pat on the back for holding the opposition to 5.5 yards per play and just 29.8 points per game. In conference play, the Golden Bears have allowed 37.7 points per game, but only 5.1 yards per play. Cal has nine turnovers in three conference games and some of those have really put the defense into compromising positions. The defense will be under siege in this game with Washington’s Air Raid. The pass defense has been decent to date with a 62.1 percent completion percentage against and the secondary is the most experienced part of the defense, but this is a hard scheme for anybody to defend.
College Football Free Pick: Cal Golden Bears +14
If you can find a 14, that is a good look in a game that will likely become a pros vs. joes affair by Friday night. Cal will be the sharp side and Wazzu will be the public side. This Cal defense is better than the numbers would indicate, even if the offense is probably as bad as the numbers would indicate. Washington State is in a pretty bad spot here, which often gets ignored by the public bettors. For Cal and first-year head coach Justin Wilcox, this is a chance to knock off a top team at home and get a barometer on where the program is. Don’t underestimate that, especially on a short week with back-to-back road games for the Cougars.