Saturday afforded a rare opportunity, being not only a day with no Oregon St. game to schedule around, but also a chance to watch a contest between the 2 teams the Beavers visit the next 2 Saturdays, with Washington St. visiting California.
With 4 wins in the books and a lot of potentially tougher opponents to follow, both games are ones Oregon St. very much need to win if a bowl trip is to be in their December plans. At 4-2, and 2-1 in the Pac-12 North, just a half game behind the Beavers, next week's Dad's
Day Night game in Pullman, the Coug's only appearance in Pullman in 40 days, is very much the same thing for Washington St.
So what can we expect Saturday night, and what can we learn from yesterday's 44-22 Washington St. win in Berkeley (which wasn't as close as the final score indicates; the Cougars were short changed a score by a short spot and a non-review, the first but not last review failure by the conference on the day) that snapped an 8 game losing streak to the once Golden Bears?
First and foremost, it will be Connor Halliday at quarterback for the Cougs. After having been knocked out of the game the week before in Seattle against Stanford, there was doubt about whether Halliday would be able to go against Cal, never mind finish the game.
Being a gamer, Halliday did start, but was exhibiting a lot of pain with every throw, so much so that he was visibly upset after throwing a touchdown pass because of his frustration with the pain.
Had freshman Austin Apodaca, who has finished 2 games in his career, had to take on Oregon St.'s Sean Mannion in a shootout, it would have likely been a blowout. But Halliday toughed out the afternoon, and even appeared to get more comfortable as the game wore on.
Halliday finished with a Washington St. single game record 67 pass attempts, 41 of which were caught, 61%, for 521 yards, the most passing yards in a Pac-10/12 game since 2005. The effort elevated Halliday to #3 in the nation in total passing yards this year.
With a week to rest and rehab, Halliday will be ready to match throws with Mannion, and doubtless looking forward to trying to out-throw the nation's leader in passing yards and total yards.
The question then becomes, who does the Oregon St. secondary most need to try to take away as a target for Halliday. The short answer is anyone in the stadium Saturday wearing a Washington St. jersey.
Halliday hooked up with a full dozen receivers, and 10 of them more than once. If you can get open, Halliday will find you.
Gabe Marks leads the Cougars over the course of the season in both catchs and yards, but was relatively quiet against Cal, with only 55 yards on 4 catches. Marcus Mason lead Washington St., with 118 yards, on only 4 catches, but 68 of those came on a sprint away for a touchdown a minute before halftime that opened a 21-12 lead.
Bobby Ratliff was Halliday's favorite target, with 8 catches, but the biggest challenge for the Oregon St. secondary will probably be Vince Mayle, who at 6'3" and 240 lbs., will be a physical overmatch for anyone the Beavers can put on him.
Mayle had only 4 catches against Cal, but 2 went for touchdowns, including Washington St.'s first and last ones. The second one went for 72 yards, and put the game out of reach with less than 5 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, as it opened a 35-15 lead. Mayle has speed, but also the strength to manhandle the ball away from most defensive backs.
The game is almost assuredly going to be an air show, with no adverse weather in the long range forecast, and Washington St. almost uninterested in rushing the ball. The Cougars only ran 18 times in 88 plays, given that there were a pair of kneel downs and one sack of Halliday.
The big uncertainty was about the Washington St. defense, which had looked good in 3 previous wins, and at least respectable in a narrow road loss on opening weekend at Auburn, but had been taken apart by Stanford.
The Stanford game has to be considered the anomaly, at least as far as Oregon St. is concerned. The Cougars loaded up to stop the Cardinal rushing game, which wasn't an unreasonable approach, and Stanford's success came substantially from an at the time unproven set of receivers, who got behind a Washington St, secondary that frequently had all 11 players starting within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, sometimes including safeties farther up than corners. The Cougs are 122nd in the country in rushing.
Oregon St. head coach Mike Riley, who calls the plays for the Beavers, will attempt to establish a running game, and the return of both TB Storm Woods and FB Tyler Anderson, as well as having the healthiest group of offensive linemen they have had all season after the bye, with Gavin Andrews and possibly Grant Enger back in action.
But the Beavers are still unlikely to be as formidable as Stanford, and the running game will still best serve to supplement and set up the Mannion to Bradin Cooks connection, plus make Mannion's multiple other targets more available.
In recent years, a lack of speed has highlighted Washington St.'s defensive struggles; often they were unable to make the plays that were required, and in fairness they were trying to execute, in a timely enough manner. That's no longer the case.
Indeed, success against the Cougar defense comes mostly from deception and mis-direction; even Stanford's passing success was a form of that, throwing when a run was expected.
That doesn't mean Washington St.'s defense can't be exploited; California outgained the Cougars, rolling up 585 yards, including 506 in the air. The key is ensuring the Cougs have more than one thing to worry about on every play.
Hence the need for the Oregon St. tight end corp, a strength so far this season, as well as Richard Mullaney and Kevin Cummings to have productive days, which includes providing targets even when Mannion doesn't go to them, as well as getting something going with Woods. What the Beavers can not afford is to find 8-10 Cougs waiting for them on any given play.
What about Cal?
I expect the Pullman trip to be the tougher of the two, and that's because while California is actually the more dangerous and explosive of the two teams, Washington St. is by far the better team. The Cougars' ability to close out the game, with 3 4th quarter field goals and a defense that shut out the Bears for 18 1/2 minutes after a 53 yard touchdown pass to James Grisom had pulled California within 13 points, showed a mature side to the Washington St. team that first impressions of the Mike Leach "Air Raid" don't include.
The Bears are the Bears we have come to know recently, a bad football team. That's a dangerous sounding thing to write, and isn't intended to become bulletin board material, aka a John Canzano column, but is a reflection on reality.
Harper had 13 catches for 216 yards, including an 89 yard touchdown bomb, alone against Washington St., and its easy to envision how any of them, and a couple other California weapons as well, could produce a Sportscenter highlight that turns a game around. They have all produced plays of that caliber before.
But what Oregon St. can probably also count on in 2 weeks in Strawberry Canyon includes California committing double digit penalties (the Bears were flagged 11 times Saturday that the Cougars accepted), numerous turnovers (California turned the ball over 5 times against the Cougs, including a pair of fumbles inside the Washington St. 5 yard line, both of which were recovered by Kalifitoni Pole, an imposing load of over 300 lbs. of Cougar muscle), special teams miscues, and missed passes.
Freshman California quarterback Jared Goff, who is still 5th in the country in passing yards, and 7th in total offense, despite his disastrous outing in the monsoon in Autzen a week ago gets something of a bye for the fumbles and inaccuracy that got him benched in the first quarter; as the conditions (weather and the opposition) were some of the most extreme anyone will ever see, and certainly nothing he had any chance to be prepared for.
But there no excuses Saturday, playing at home in better than perfect conditions. Goff did throw for 489 yards before being pulled again late in the game, but completed only 32 of 58 throws, just 55%. At below 60% in home games, all games, conference games, and any other sample slice, Goff is the latest run in a series of wildly inaccurate Cal quarterbacks recruited by the now departed Jeff Tedford.
Without a effective rushing game (the Bears netted only 79 against a Washington St. defense focused on the pass after numerous sacks of Goff were subtracted) despite the presence of Bigelow, who had only 41 yards on 12 carries, inaccuracy and errors are un-survivable.
One last factor that will make Pullman much more inhospitable than Berkeley will be the crowds. With every reason to expect a shot at a win that would pull the Cougs within 1 victory of ending the 5th longest bowl drought in the country, Dad's night will see a sell out in Martin Stadium.
Pullman isn't usually considered one of the toughest venues in the Pac-12, but that won't be the case this week. Even though Oregon St. will be "loading the war wagon" for this one, taking the full band and a sizable caravan of fans, Butch and his crew will have Martin as loud and raucous as any non Apple Cup contest in some time.
Renovated Memorial Stadium will be another matter.
Despite stupendous weather, and no conflicting event (Stanford's nigh game against Washington was enough later that crossing the bay to take in both games was a doable double header many partook of), and arguably the most winnable game of the year for the Bears, there were thousands of empty seats Saturday in the beautiful recently renovated Memorial Stadium.
Being a driveable road trip for Beaver Nation, Oregon St.'s usually strong road crew should be able to be a presence, especially if the Bears are unsuccessful next week in the Rose Bowl against 11th ranked and unbeaten UCLA, a rival that will be laying in wait looking to exact revenge for California's upset win last season.
Get the lawn mowed and the chores done today, Beaver fans; we are going road-tripping the next 2 weeks, for what may be the most important games of the season.