Cal handled Washington State's Air Raid offense as a well as anyone in the three years Justin Wilcox has been the Bears head coach, so you might assume Cal will shut down the similar run-and-shoot offense the Cougars (1-2) will use against Cal (1-3) on Saturday night in Pullman, Wash.
Maybe, but the run-and-shoot offense first-year head coach Nick Rolovich installed has some key differences from Mike Leach's Air Raid, even though the two pass-oriented, spread offenses look nearly identical to the casual viewer.
Let's review what Cal's defense did against Washington State's Air Raid the past three years, knowing that the Cougars ranked among the top two teams in the nation in passing offense each of those seasons.
2017: Washington State was 6-0, ranked No. 8 and had scored at least 30 points in each of its first six games. Unranked Cal had lost three in a row, but intercepted Cougars quarterback Luke Falk five times and recorded nine sacks in a 37-3 rout of the Cougars. It was the only game that season Washington State did not score at least two touchdowns.
2018: Washington State finished that season as the Pac-12's top scoring team (37.5 point per game), and when it faced 5-3, unranked Cal, the Cougars were 7-1 and ranked No. 10. The game was tied 13-13 until Gardner Minshew, who had thrown an interception earlier, threw his only touchdown pass of the game with 32 seconds left to gve the Cougars a 19-13 win in Pullman, Wash.
2019: Washington State again finished the 2019 season as the Pac-12's top scoring team (37.8 point per game) and was averaging 41.8 points over its first eight games when it faced Cal, which had lost four in a row and was playing without injured quarterback Chase Garbers. Cal beat the Cougars 33-20, and the score was 33-14 before WSU scored a meaningless touchdown with five seconds left.
When you look at Washington State's offensive alignment against Cal on Saturday night in Pullma, it will look very much like the one the Cougars used last year. And the type of personnel used in Rolovich's run-and-shoot is virtually identical to the type of personnel required for Leach's Air Raid. That's part of the reason Rolovich was hired after Leach left to take the Mississippi State job.
"That was a smart continuity hire for what the roster looked like," Cal defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said.
Sirmon expands on his assessment of WSU's run-and-shoot offense:
And there is practically no way a true freshman like Jayden de Laura could have stepped in as the starting quarterback this season if he had not played in a run-and-shoot offense in high school (St. Louis High School, Honolulu).
But there are differences between this year's run-and-shoot and last year's Air Raid.
"It's not the same offense," Wilcox said. "There's more run game [this year]. The quarterback is moving off his spot, either designed or not. The receivers, there's some different route concepts that you've seen maybe compared to the past few years from Wazzu. Just because the personnel groupings might be the same doesn't mean it's the same offense."
The obvious difference is that there is more run-pass balance this season.
Last year the Cougars averaged just 16.2 rushing attempts per game and a mere 68.1 rushing yards per contest. This year WSU is averaging 28 rushing attempts per game and 134 rushing yards per game. Deon McIntosh is averaging 101.3 rushing yards per game this season, and he is really the Cougars' No. 2 tailback, behind preseason first-team all-Pac-12 running back Max Borghi, who missed the first three games with an injury.
And the Cougars are passing less. They averaged 54.6 passes and 437.2 passing yards per game last season compared with 37 pass attempts and 246 passing yards per contest this year.
The Cougars' offense would be more dynamic this week if Borghi plays for the first time this season on Saturday. An outstanding rusnner and pass-catcher, Borghi is considered questionable for the game against Cal.
Having said all that and having listened to the Cal coaches talk about the distinct differences between the Leach and Rolovich offenses, there is still reason to believe Cal's defensive braintrust will devise a way to slow this year's Washington State attack like it did the Leach offense. The similarities are too obvious to ignore, and Cal's success against that kind of attack is not debatable. Plus, the WSU offense was not impressive in its 38-13 loss to USC this past week.
Of course, the question is whether Cal's offense, which ranks last in the Pac-12 in scoring, can put up enough points on a chilly night in Pullman to come away with a win.
Cover photo of Jayden de Laura by James Snook, USA TODAY Sports
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