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Cal Football

Washington State Preview: Cougars Are the Pac-12's biggest surprise

November 1, 2018
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Since the Pac-12 football schedule was released in March, Cal knew it would be heading to the Palouse in early November. What the Bears did not know, nor could they have envisioned, is that they would be facing the conference’s highest-rated team (10th in AP poll) and it’s best, albeit faint, hope to reach the College Football Playoff.

They also could not have predicted that they would be facing the leading passer in the nation. With coach Mike Leach’s offense, everyone knows the ball is going to be passed a lot. But the current quarterback, who is putting up such dazzling numbers, came out of nowhere.

OK, not literally nowhere, but Gardner Minshew II (16 above) is a graduate transfer from East Carolina, which might be close to nowhere.

With Luke Falk, the latest in the string of passers to thrive under Leach, graduated, WSU (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) went into the season not knowing who would take over. After the spring, it seemed as if it would be Trey Tinsley or Anthony Gordon, a pair of inexperienced redshirt juniors.

Enter Minshew, who had been on Leach’s (and Nick Saban’s) radar for some time. “I really liked the way the ball came out of his hand,” Leach said when asked about the first time he saw the mustachioed Minshew. “And he was competitive. Then we got to know each other on the phone and it went from there.”

And now?

“I think he’s the best quarterback in the country,” Leach said after last Saturday’s comeback victory over Stanford, the Cougars fourth victory in a row.

The numbers certainly bear him out. Minshew  leads the nation in passing yardage per game (something Leach promised him he would do during one of those phone calls) at 397.9. His other numbers 219-for-414, 71 per cent, 26 touchdowns are all in the top ten.

More importantly he does it when it matters. He led the spirited fourth quarter rally past the Cardinal last week.

““Gardner Minshew’s ability to make big throws in big situations –he has a no flinch mentality,” Alex Brink, former WSU quarterback and a Cougars TV analyst. “When he feels it’s a big moment, he takes over. Washington State was lucky when he decided to commit (here) over Alabama.”

And that’s not all Cal will be dealing with on Saturday night. A closer look at the Cougars

 

Offense

 

Minshew would not be an effective passer without targets, and he has plenty. Eleven Cougars have at least 13 catches. The leader is sophomore Tay Martin with 51 catches for 478 yards and seven TDs. He ranks second in the conference in catches per game.

“His ability to get separation at the last moment, sometimes with a subtle shove or arm extension has been superb,”  wrote Micheal Preston of SB nation. “He’s as dependable as anyone on the back shoulder throw against the sideline and with his history of basketball (even an offer for it from Tulane!), he has become yet another go-to receiver in the Air Raid.

“Any time you spot Martin one-on-one without safety help, you can be sure Minshew has too, and that the ball will likely be heading that direction.”

Martin’s last TD reception was a 7-yarder last week that began the Cougars’ fourth-quarter onslaught against Stanford.

Fellow wide receiver Dezmon Patmon, who is third on the team with 41 catches, had a breakout game against the Cardinal with ten grabs for 127 yards. Leach said he had been waiting for a game like that from Patmon.

“He has been impressive lately and I think he continues to improve and I think that sometimes what he does physically – because he does have a unique strength to him – I don’t think it surprises anyone but him,” Leach said said in his press conference this week.  “I think everybody looks and says, ‘Yeah, well of course,’ and then the only guy surprised is Dez.”

With so much passing WSU has little time to run the ball. They are last in the league in rushing with a paltry 70.9 yards per game. But that doesn’t mean the running backs have nothing to do.

Starting tailback James Williams is second on the team in receptions with 48 good for 404 yards. His backup Max Borghi has 28 catches. Minshew always knows where they are.

When they run the ball they are reasonably effective, Williams averages 4.2 yards per carry, but he has carried it only 81 times, half as many as Pac-12 leader Jemar Jefferson of Oregon State.

Amazingly Minshew, who has dropped back to pass more than anyone in the country, has been sacked just six times. In their upset win over WSU last year, Cal recorded nine sacks.

There are many reasons, and it starts with the offensive line, rebuilt under line coach Mason Miller. Two returning starters, including massive senior left tackle (6-5, 310)  Andre Dillard, have been joined by a trio of underclassmen to provide the first line of defense for Minshew. But there is more to keeping the quarterback upright than the line.

“It’s a combination of things,” said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “They do a good job with their protection and the offensive line is playing well. When teams do pressure them, he’s athletic, and he’s doing a good job of buying time and keeping his eyes down field and look for the open receiver.

“You’ve got man pressure, you’ve got to play leverage one way or the other, and everything they build is based on leverage. He is really accurate with the ball and knows how much time he has. He’s got a really good clock in his head and knows where to go when that pressure comes.”

Stanford saw first-hand what they are capable of. “Their offense is like a well-oiled machine,”  defensive back Alijah Holder said. “Why it’s so productive is they run these plays over and over. The quarterback knows where to go with a certain blitz or if he gets a certain look.”Cardinal head coach David Shaw had an interesting take before the game. “Coach Leach will tell you that it’s not complex, but the appearance of complexity to us, the variety of formations, the speed with which they go, the added shifts and motions, all the crossing routes from different combinations and screens — there’s a lot to go through your mind in a short span of time,” Shaw said.

 

Defense

 

While offense gets all the attention, the Cougars are not too shabby on defense. Their unit, dubbed “Speed D” is fourth in the conference in total defense (337.6 yards per game), third in pass defense (198.2) third in rushing defense (133.4). They are second in the conference with 22 sacks.

It will be another challenge for the Cal team that last week went against the league’s top-ranked defense in Washington.

“You do tend to think about Washington State’s offense and you forget that they are good on defense, and they have been good on defense for a while, said Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. “They were really good on defense when we played them last year.

“They move around, they’re so athletic, they do a lot of pre-snap movement, they do a lot of post-snap movement, especially with their fronts. They’re athletic in terms of how they play on the back end.

“They’re not afraid … they’ll challenge you. They’re not afraid to play on islands, too.”

Up front the Cougars usually line up with three men, although that can vary along with everything else in this defense. Nose guard Taylor Comfort is just 6-0, 275, small for the position, and it not particularly quick But he is good at getting lower leverage on offensive linemen and pushingthem back.

The other linemen Logan Tago, Ndamdi Oquavo and WIllie Rodgers, move in and out of the lineup and up and down the line. As Baldwin noted, the movement can occur when the quarterback is already in his count.

The leader of the defense is middle linebacker Peyton Pelleur, who was granted a sixth season of eligibility. He started slowly this year, recording just 14 tackles in the first three games. But he has been a dervish since, recording 47 in the last three.

Against Stanford last week, he had a huge play when he stripped quarterback of the ball, causing a fumble.

The Cougars lost  Frankie Luvu and Dylan Hanser at the Rush linebacker spot, but Dominick Silvels and Willie Taylor III have proven capable replacements, particularly Silvels. He leads the Cougars in both sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss. He is very good at shedding blocks and forcing running backs to change their direction. As a pass rusher, he confuses quarterbacks by lining up on the left side on one play, and the right the next.

Jahad Woods is listed as the will or weak side linebacker, but he too can be found, or lost, almost everywhere in the WSU defense. He will cover a back or tight end out of the backfield or on another play go hell-bent for quarterback on a blitz. He is second on the team with 44 tackles and tied with Pelleur for most sacks with three.

The starting secondary is one of the most experienced in the nation, with everyone in at least his third year. Strong safety Jaylen Thompson has started every game since his 2016 freshman year. Cornerback Darrien Molton has been a starter for four years and is a true leader. In his career he has made 188 tackles and caught two interceptions.

As a group the Cougar defense has allowed only 11 passing touchdowns this season.

 

Special Teams

 

Place-kicker Blake Mazza is 7-for-10 on field goal tries, which puts him in the middle of the conference rankings. But he hit the one that counted most. His 42-yarder with nine seconds left provided the winning points at Stanford. He also has been good from 50 yards.

Punter Oscar Draguicevich III is 4th in the country in punting (47.6).

The Cougars rank eighth in the nation in kickoff returns and Travell Harris is 14th in the individual numbers; Both 27.2 yards. Harris returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Eastern Washington.

 

Overall

 

What makes the Cougars’ ascension all the more remarkable was the season began with tragedy and turmoil.

Quarterback Tyler Hilinski committed suicide in January. Prior to that five assistant coaches left the staff. Through it all Leach managed to keep everyone on the right track, They grieved but did not mope, adjusted to the new assistants and have the Eastern part of Washington excited.

After the Stanford game Leach offered some insights to the Mercury News,

“We went through a lot of adversity, obviously, with (Tyler Hilinski’s) passing,” he said. “That was tough on everybody, but the best way to honor and glorify one of your friends or relatives is to reach your full potential.

“. . .Our guys were about that age where, ‘Okay, it’s my turn to distinguish myself,’ except, ‘We’re not so sure about you. We like him too, you know.’ The level of competition was really good, and then Gardner’s energy escalated that.

“And then (defensive coordinator Tracy) Claeys and (special teams coach Matt) Brock holding the team together. There’s none of these sides-of-the-ball divisions. Those things, I hate. It’s pathetic. There isn’t any of that division, and that’s kind of elevated everybody. It’s an all-for-one environment. And again, the competition. It’s maybe the most coachable team I’ve ever had.”

Notes

Cal leads the all-time series, 47-27-5 .. WSU has won 11 straight home games, and were 7-0 at home last year. ...The weather forecast is for showers Saturday night. ...The No; 10 ranking is the Cougars’  highest since they were No. 8 going into last year’s game in Berkeley... Through eight games, WSU has had secven different players lead the team in receiving

 

 
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