BERKELEY, Calif. — Sunday, the day after Washington State and Cal wrapped up at Memorial Stadium, the Pac-12 admitted officials flubbed a third-quarter hands-to-the-face call on a kickoff return that would’ve advanced the Cougars to the Golden Bears’ 33-yard line.
Instead, because referees incorrectly called a penalty on WSU, rather than Cal, Travell Harris’ big return was wiped out and the Cougars’ possession started at their own 8-yard line — a 57-yard difference.
It doesn’t provide much solace for a WSU team that was obviously more than a penalty or two away from shaking its Berkeley woes in a 33-20 loss, but it just goes to show the Cougars can’t seem to get through four quarters at Memorial Coliseum without a few bizarre, unordinary plot twists.
More ordinary was that, for the sixth time in six games, an offense coached by Mike Leach staggered against a defense coached by Justin Wilcox and for the third time in four games, the Cougars’ defense couldn’t find solutions for an offense coached by Beau Baldwin.
We dive into Washington State’s problems against Wilcox and Baldwin, look at the third down woes and grade the offensive line in the latest edition of the rewind.
Since Mike Leach took over in Pullman seven years ago, Cougars have faced a Beau Baldwin offense four times and a Justin Wilcox defense six times. We added up the point totals scored by Baldwin’s teams at Eastern Washington and Cal against the Cougars, along with the points given up by Wilcox’s teams at USC, Washington and Cal in games against WSU.
On average, the Cougars are giving up 32 points to Baldwin’s offense and scoring just 12 against Wilcox’s defense.
It’s always been a problematic pairing for Leach and the Cougars and Saturday was no different, even as the Golden Bears were mired in their worst offensive slump in at least a decade — but probably much longer.
In the postgame news conference, Cal’s Evan Weaver suggested that WSU’s strengths on offense correlate well with the Bears’ strengths on defense. The Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep also talked about giving up yards in places where the Bears can afford them, but buckling down once WSU’s offense reached the red zone.
“We knew they were going to get yards the whole game,” Weaver said. “That’s what they do, they score points, they get yards. It’s just about stopping them inside the 30, inside the 25. Red zone territory. If we can keep them to field goals and keep doing that, keep doing that. They have a great scheme, they run about 10 different plays, but they run them pretty immaculate.”
In Wilcox’s six encounters with Leach’s offense, the Cal coach has held WSU to these point totals: 10, 13, 10, 3, 19 and 20.
In Baldwin’s four meetings with Leach, his offense has only stumbled once, scoring 45, 37, 13 and 33 points on the Cougars.
The Golden Bears may not always be a formidable foe on paper — after all, they did come into Saturday’s contest on a four-game skid — but it seems they’ll always be a tough out for the Cougars with Wilcox and Baldwin on the sideline.
Unprompted, during a bye week media availability, WSU running back Max Borghi detailed how putrid the Cougars had been on third down in their 37-35 loss to Oregon, despite being among the nation’s best on first and second down.
Whatever efforts the Cougars made to change course with regard to third down weren’t enough, because they converted on just 3-of-12 in their 20-point showing at Cal.
“I don’t know, I feel like guys might get a little timid out there because it’s third down, a little antsy out there or something,” Borghi said two weeks ago. “I really couldn’t tell you what it is. We’ve just got to do our jobs more and execute no matter what down it is.”
And Leach hit on the topic last Tuesday, briefly, explaining “we’ve got to be better at third down. You always try to get better at third down, but like every year, I’ve never had what I consider a satisfactory third down year, but also it’s important to get a lot of first downs and we do that.”
Where has it gone wrong?
“Just little things, little things,” Leach said. “Execution would be the quick answer. … I’d say little details, we just need to put it in play.”
The coach bemoaned WSU’s play on third down after Saturday’s game, suggesting the Cougars weren’t any better at converting third downs than they were at preventing them. The defense allowed Cal to convert 6-of-12. Statistically, the Bears have been among the worst in the country, with a 35 percent success rate on third down.
“As a team, we’re almost toxic on third down,” Leach said. “And that’s just toughness, that’s how bad do you want it?”
While the offensive line was fine in pass protection, and has been most of the season, the unit struggled in other areas, accounting for four of WSU’s 10 penalties and failing to create running paths for Borghi.
Left tackle Liam Ryan, who by himself has accounted for more than half of the total O-line penalties this season, was hit with three false start penalties and one holding call, while left guard Robert Valencia drew another flag for holding.
Redshirt freshman Jarrett Kingston, who played some in the game against Colorado, spelled Valencia at left guard for one series in Saturday’s game and, without detailing what changes he’d make, Leach suggested the coaches might take a look at replacing certain players with others before the season’s over, and that some much larger personnel changes could be on their way for the O-line this offseason.
“Well, we’re looking at it,” Leach said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t know if we will in the next two weeks. I’m certainly not opposed to it. But by next year, not just the slots that are open, it wouldn’t surprise me if we have some new faces that just beat out people from this year.”
The Cougars haven’t strayed from the starting five of Ryan (LT), Valencia (LT), Fred Mauigoa (C), Josh Watson (RG) and Abraham Lucas (RT) this season, and relative to how often Anthony Gordon drops back to throw, the group has mostly held up in pass protection, allowing only 1.11 sacks per game.
But the penalty yards have piled up and on Saturday, the Cougars finished with only 16 total rushing yards and Borghi, the Pac-12’s leader in yards per attempt, only had 18 yards and went for 2.6 per attempt.
“Some of them are just kind of the same thing, you’re seeing the same thing over and over,” Leach said of the O-linemen. “And all the sudden there’s no progress, corrections aren’t made.”