Justin Wilcox had a fair amount of success against Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense during his defensive coordinator pit stops at Washington and USC. Beau Baldwin knows a thing or two about scoring on an Alex Grinch defense, too. His FCS club rang up 45 points in Pullman last year – not that you needed a reminder of Eastern’s 45-42 victory.
Now both coaches are at Cal; Wilcox as the first-year head coach and Baldwin as his team’s offensive coordinator. They make a pretty good tag team heading into Friday night’s game against visiting and eighth-ranked Washington State (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
So if there’s a trap game on WSU’s schedule, is this it? Consider:
▪ If any team could figure out how to beat WSU, it would be Cal under these coaches. Cal has won 10 of 12 in the series although it did lose, 56-21, last year at WSU.
▪ The Cougars are traveling on a short week having beaten Oregon last Saturday in Eugene and have some banged up defenders, mostly at linebacker;
▪ For all the privileges that come with being a top-10 team, it can be quite the burden, too, because all teams want to knock you down a peg.
The reality is Cal has its share of issues. The Bears’ 3-0 start is a distant memory after three consecutive losses. The Cougars – who are 6-0 for the first time in 15 years – are playing at a pretty high level right now and represent a third game against Top 10 competition in four weeks for the Bears.
“As happy as we are with six wins, it’s only six wins and it really gets us nowhere,” WSU linebacker Dylan Hanser said. “It will be a lot better when we get the next six.”
The deciding factor in this game could be how well Grinch handles Baldwin’s offense. Because the other matchup – Cal’s defense vs. Luke Falk and the WSU offense – seems to favor the Cougars.
Cal ranks No. 102 in total defense, giving up 436 yards per game. The Cougars, meanwhile, have scored at least 30 points in six straight game for the school’s longest streak since seven in a row in 2001.
“We appreciate the hard work and the effort they’re giving,” Wilcox said. “Unfortunately that doesn’t win games. You need it. You can’t win without it. We have to go out and perform better. There’s a lot to go into that. Everyone has a role in it.”
Wilcox wants to see the team that opened the season with wins over North Carolina, Weber State and Mississippi on Friday night. For that to happen, his buttery-fingered offense has to keep possession against a ball-hawking WSU defense.
The Bears have turned the ball over in every game this season and have nine during their three-game losing streak. Oregon State is the only Power Five team with more giveaways than Cal. Bears quarterback Ross Bowers is throwing an interception for almost every touchdown and he’s being sacked 3.8 times per game. That’s tied for 124th in the nation.
“We’re just trying to come back,” Bowers said. “Whatever bad habits we formed these past three weeks, we’re trying to get out of them and get back to our goals. We’re trying to get back to the win column and do all the little things right during the week.”
The Cougars are off to their best start since winning their first seven games in 2001. Led by Falk and an improved defense, Leach’s squad has the school holding its highest ranking in 14 years.
“They’re playing well, especially on the defensive side,” Baldwin said. “They’re playing with what I call ‘chaotic energy,’ but doing it while in incredible control.”