The Washington State Cougars are in recovery mode. A shooting last weekend left one of their players fighting for his life, and they've suffered two straight losses to start the Pac-12 schedule.
It doesn't get any easier on the road against the California Golden Bears this Saturday in Berkeley.
Fortunately, Brandon Gray — a redshirt junior receiver — is now in stable condition after getting shot last Saturday in an early-morning incident that happened just blocks from campus and also resulted in the death of another young man.
"There was a lot of emotion," Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich told reporters. "That's just a hard thing to hear on the morning of a game.
"We talked about playing inspired football for BG."
It didn't go as planned later that night in a 24-13 loss to Utah in Salt Lake City. But the Cougars (1-3, 0-2 Pac-12) get a chance to redeem themselves on the road against Cal.
That's the same story with the Golden Bears, though.
An overtime fumble by running back Damien Moore at the goal line last week kept Cal (1-3, 0-1) from at least forcing another OT session with Washington in a 31-24 defeat.
It was the first Pac-12 game for the Bears, with head coach Justin Wilcox calling it a "gut-punch." And it means they sport the same overall record as the Cougars entering Saturday's meeting in California Memorial Stadium.
"Nobody is OK with losing," Wilcox told reporters. "We don't accept losing. We don't pat ourselves on the back for good effort. Good effort and toughness is expected. That's the price of admission just to be here. So we expect to win, but we're also not going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. Washington State is coming in, and they don't care about that. Nobody does. We can't sit around and feel bad, woe is me, coulda shoulda woulda … That's not a way to live life or play football."
Washington State at California
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 5:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: California -7.5
When Washington State Has the Ball
There are plenty of questions on offense for Wazzu. They begin with who gets the nod under center and whether running back Max Borghi is healthy enough to play against Cal.
Injuries have ripped apart Washington State's backfield, with alternating starting QBs Jayden de Laura (leg) and Jarrett Guarantano (knee) both hobbled in the early going. Just as it was last weekend when the starter wasn't known until senior Guarantano took his spot in the huddle, this is likely a game-time decision for Rolovich.
Sophomore de Laura is close, says Rolovich, to being healthy — and, really, he gives the Cougars the best chance to win over error-prone Guarantano. A dual-threat signal-caller, de Laura is 43-of-70 for 575 yards and six touchdowns against two interceptions and has rolled up 66 more via the ground. Tennessee transfer Guarantano is 33-of-49 for 304 yards, with a TD and three picks.
Regardless of who's at the helm, he will have talented pass-catchers in seniors Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris each have 200-plus pass-catching yards on the year. However, Borghi is questionable to play, per Rolovich, because of a wrist injury last week.
And while Deon McIntosh can certainly carry the mail, he doesn’t bring what fellow senior Borghi does. McIntosh has 145 yards on 30 carries in 2021, while Borghi has 259 on 43 carries and the elusive moves to make him a future Sunday star.
Cal, however, has shown it can stop the run — just 121 yards allowed per game to stand third stingiest in the conference — even though sloppy tackling has hurt the defense on the year.
All that said, Wazzu needs what is supposed to be a solid offensive line to improve, especially in the interior, as the unit has allowed nearly four sacks a game, which is the worst of Pac-12 teams. The Cougs will have to be wary of steady Cameron Goode, who has 19 tackles and a team-high three tackles for a loss for California.
When California Has the Ball
That last-play turnover against Washington is a microcosm of Cal's season. The Bears could easily be 4-0 if not for costly mistakes. And they're not doing enough in the red zone.
"In football, you've got to have a short memory," California quarterback Chase Garbers told Reuters after the loss in Seattle. "Obviously, losing (stinks). We've got to learn from it and move on."
That begins, of course, with the quarterback himself.
Garbers, 22, is the guy for the Golden Bears, having already thrown for 1,093 yards on 93-of-140 passing — that's a solid 66.4 percent completion rate — and seven TDs. But the senior QB has to cut down on the interceptions. He's already been saddled with four — one more than in each of the last two seasons.
Two came in last week's loss, although he went 30-of-41 for 319 yards and two TDs. He leads the Pac-12 in total offense — 880 yards — and total offense per game. So … as Garbers goes, so does Cal's offense — and Wilcox says his star pivot is progressing.
His top pass-catchers are senior Trevon Clark and sophomore Jeremiah Hunter, with 267 and 238 yards, respectively, while fellow wide receiver Kekoa Crawford has 189 receiving yards.
Meanwhile, Moore has rushed for a team-high 304 yards and five scores this season, but the sophomore running back isn't yet a full-go to play against Washington State after that crushing hit to force the turnover hurt him.
All told, Cal is producing its highest numbers over the past five seasons in four major offensive categories: scoring offense (28.8 ppg), total offense (440.8 ypg), rushing offense (167.5 ypg), and passing offense (273.3 ypg).
The offense just needs to put points on the board when in position.
But does a timely turnover loom large again? The Cougars' defense enters the week leading the Pac-12 with six fumble recoveries, which is second most in the country. And its 10 takeaways are second-most in the conference and sixth-highest in the country
Senior linebacker Jahad Woods leads the Wazzu charge with 32 total tackles and enters the week with 351 career tackles, which is sixth in WSU history, the most by any active Pac-12 player, and third highest among all FBS players.
Wazzu might answer a question or two for the game in Berkeley. But there are just too many to right the ship on the road against a Cal crew that should be more explosive than it is and should be motivated by its early-season follies.
That's not to say the Cougars will be pushovers, though. They've got motivation to improve on their side as well.
"We're better than 14 points and 13 points the last two games," Rolovich told reporters. "We're just better than that. We have more talent than that, so we just have to see how we can improve it."
The thing is, California is simply the better team — a year or two ahead of Wazzu. And it's supposed to be the Golden Bears year to put things together in a wide-open Pac 12.
After last week's heartbreak, the time is now to do that. Expect another win for Cal in a series they own 48-28-5.
Prediction: California 30, Washington State 17
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