Washington State finds itself in rare territory as it travels to Berkley to face California on Friday night.
The No. 8 Cougars (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) climbed into the top 10 in both the AP and Coaches polls after handling Oregon 33-10 last week. Washington State has raced off to its best start since 2001 and has legitimately turned the quest for a Pac-12 North title into a two-team race.
The Bears (3-3, 0-3) have seen a promising start to the season fizzle amid a cloud of injuries and offensive ineptitude. California is trying to avoid enduring a four-game losing streak in conference play for the third consecutive season.
California leads the series with Washington State 46-27-5. The Bears have won 10 of the last 12 matchups, but the Cougars won 56-21 last season in Pullman.
Washington State at California
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 13 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington State – 13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Washington State dialing up defensive pressure
There's more to these Cougars than the passing feats of senior quarterback Luke Falk. Washington State boasts one of the nation's best all-around defenses. One reason behind it is that the Cougars thrive on making disruptive plays.
Washington State ranks in the top 15 nationally both in sacks (21) and tackles for a loss (49). The Cougars totaled 20 sacks and 72 TFL during the entire 2016 season. They rank 11th nationally in total defense, allowing just 275.5 yards per game, and yield just 4.5 yards per play. Washington State also is fifth nationally in turnovers gained (15).
Hercules Mata'afa sets the tone up front with his ability to ratchet up the pressure. Mata'afa has 10 TFLs and 4.5 sacks in six games. Frankie Luvu has been brilliant since moving to outside linebacker. Luvu is second on the team in tackles for a loss (6.5) and sacks (3.5). In the secondary, Jalen Thompson leads the team in tackles (34) and interceptions (three).
The Cougars are poised to wreak havoc against the Bears. California ranks 10th among Pac-12 teams in turnover margin (-1) and is 11th in both scoring (24.3 ppg) and total offense (345.2 ypg).
2. Can California avoid another offensive meltdown?
The Bears have a terrible track record on offense against ranked conference opponents. In losses to USC and Washington, California couldn't do anything to move the chains when it counted.
Turnovers were the culprit against the Trojans. California totaled six turnovers against USC. Four of those came on four consecutive fourth-quarter drives – the last three were interceptions thrown by Ross Bowers. USC scored a pair of touchdowns on the first two turnovers and had 17 points off of turnovers overall in the Bears' 30-20 loss.
Everything went wrong against Washington. Bowers could not get any protection from his offensive line and the Huskies dialed up the pressure to an insane level. Washington recorded eight sacks and held the Bears to 93 yards. California had just one play that went for more than 15 yards the whole game.
It's a concerning trend with Washington State now on the horizon. The Cougars are just as ferocious on defense as they are on offense this season. Washington State leads the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing just 146.3 yards per game, and also is proficient at stopping the run. The Cougars held Oregon's potent rushing attack to a mere 132 yards and 2.9 yards per carry last weekend.
3. Ringing the Bell
It's clear after six games that Renard Bell is on track to be the next great receiver in Pullman. The redshirt freshman has become one of Washington State's most persistent playmaking threats among the receivers this season.
Bell has more than enough speed and elusiveness to offset his 5-foot-8 frame at the slot receiver position. He has totaled 374 yards and a touchdown on 20 catches in six games. Bell's 18.7 yards per catch ranks third among Pac-12 receivers. Only Tavares Martin Jr. ranks ahead of him in total receiving yards on the Cougars' roster.
Bell has totaled three 100-yard receiving games thus far. He had 107 yards against Boise State and 113 yards against Nevada. Then, against USC, Bell accumulated 101 yards on just three receptions – highlighted by a 61-yard grab that set up Washington State's first touchdown against the Trojans.
California's offensive struggles hit a new low against Washington last week. Facing another tough defensive team isn't going to help the Bears solve their problems. Losing playmakers like Demtris Robertson, Melquise Stovall and Tre Watson to injuries has had a profound effect. Luke Falk should put up his usual big numbers and the Cougars will have no trouble continuing their undefeated run.
Prediction: Washington State 38, California 17
— 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.