Cougars look to stay above the Pac-12 fray against Cal
That's a legit concern after the Bears took down Washington last week. No one needs to remind No. 8 Washington State just how much trouble California can cause. The Bears shut down the Air Raid a year ago with relative ease and are equally formidable on defense this fall.
Washington State (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) needed a 42-yard field goal from Blake Mazza with 19 seconds left to edge Stanford for a 41-38 victory last week. The Cougars have won four straight to move into first place in the Pac-12 North and have scored fewer than 31 points in a game just once this season.
California (5-3, 2-3) scored a 12-10 upset over Washington despite not scoring an offensive touchdown. The Bears' defense stifled the Huskies holding Washington to 250 total yards, and Evan Weaver scored the winning touchdown on a 37-yard interception return in the third quarter.
California holds a 47-27-5 lead over Washington State in the all-time series. The Bears have dominated the series in recent seasons, winning 11 of 13 over the Cougars dating back to 2005.
California at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 3, 10:45 pm ET
Spread: Washington State -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Can California prevent Washington State's long scoring drives?
One thing Washington State has proven it can do this season is control the ball for long stretches. The Cougars have a knack for lighting up the scoreboard, but they can also take the scenic route to the end zone when necessary.
Washington State has put together 17 scoring drives this season featuring 10 or more plays. That is the third-most of any FBS team and is the most of any Power 5 team. It serves as an ironic counterpoint to the fact that the Cougars also lead the Pac-12 with 143 plays of 10 or more yards from scrimmage.
Controlling the ball with extended drives could be a key for Washington State against California. The Bears have allowed only 73 plays going 10 or more yards from scrimmage this season. That is the fewest such plays given up by any Pac-12 team.
2. How well will Gardner Minshew handle California's defense?
The Bears shut down Luke Falk cold last season. Falk had one of his worst performances of the season, throwing five interceptions, losing a fumble, and finishing with 286 yards on 28-of-43 passing. Can a repeat scenario be ahead for Gardner Minshew?
On the surface, the easy answer is an emphatic no. Minshew is running the Air Raid like a seasoned pro. The senior transfer entered the week leading the FBS in passing yards (3,183), passing yards per game (397.9) and total offense per game (403.9). Minshew is completing a Pac-12 best 71 percent of his passes through eight games and has 26 touchdown passes to go with only six interceptions. He has not passed for less than 300 yards in a game yet this season.
Still, if any team is equipped to give Minshew problems, it would be California. The Bears are allowing 165.5 passing yards per game and 312.0 yards of total offense — their best marks in those categories since 1994. They rank first in the Pac-12 and eighth in the FBS in pass defense.
3. Will Patrick Laird reach 2,000 career rushing yards?
California's offense has been consistently mediocre this season, but Patrick Laird has been a bright spot for the Bears. Laird is the team's leading rusher with 660 yards and five touchdowns — and has totaled 276 yards on the ground in the last two games. He is also the Bears' no. 2 receiver with 213 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Laird needs just 148 rushing yards on Saturday to get to 2,000 career rushing yards. He needs only 340 more yards to join Russell White and Marshawn Lynch as the third rusher in California history to rush for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons. Laird rushed for 1,127 yards last season while averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
Putting up the necessary numbers against Washington State won't be easy for the redshirt senior. The Cougars rank third among Pac-12 teams in rushing defense, allowing just 133.38 yards on the ground per game.
Washington State has won 11 straight home games, the third-longest streak in team history and the longest streak since 1933. The Cougars seem to be in really good shape to claim their first Pac-12 North title. Their offense has remained consistently dominant, and their defense is doing enough to make it hold up. California has a good enough defense to slow down Washington State, but the Bears' below-average offense won't be able to capitalize.
Prediction: Washington State 31, California 20
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of wsucougars.com)