Friday, 4 October 2013

The Pac-12 Journey 2013 Game 43: The quarterback controversey derby

No photographer listed (left), Thearon W. Henderson (right)
Who is playing?

The Washington State Cougars and the California Golden Bears.

Where is this game being played?

Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California

What time does the game start and where can I find it on my television?

1:00 PM (PT) on Fox Sports 1.

What is the point spread?

Washington State is favored by one and a half points (-1.5)
What should I watch for when Washington State has the ball?

Connor Halliday is still the starter but is Mike Leach finally ready to pull him? Halliday's struggles this season have been well documented. Halliday has thrown nine interceptions already this season, second to only Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty and he was knocked out of last week's game. According to head coach Mike Leach, Halliday was healthy enough to go back in the game but he watched as his backup Austin Apodaca led a pair of late touchdown drives after Halliday was only able to produce one field goal in almost three full quarters of work. Halliday has gotten all the first team reps this week in practice but it is undeniable how much better the offense looked with Apodaca at QB. If Halliday struggles early especially against such a bad defense, will Leach make a move?

Speaking of that bad defense, it somehow managed to get even worse since the Oregon game one week ago. Cal's best pass rusher, linebacker Chris McCain was booted from the team for undisclosed reasons early in the week and on Friday, defensive back Alex Logan announced he is retiring from football due to injuries. Even after allowing just 381 yards of total offense last week, Cal is still giving up a ghastly average of 6.86 yards per play. Quite frankly, there is not one thing Cal does well on defense. Their defensive line can't get any pass rush whatsoever, their linebackers take poor angles and can't tackle, and their defensive backs can't cover or create turnovers. Other than that they've been doing just fine. Cal certainly isn't going to create anything with its defense and Washington State can expect their talented wide outs like Gabe Marks, Dominique Williams, and Kristoff Williams to get open consistently. This all comes down to WSU's quarterbacks whether its Halliday or Apodaca. Can Halliday hang on to his job and hit open receivers? Or will he struggle and perhaps cede his job to the more dynamic Apodaca?
What should I watch for when California has the ball?

California finds itself in a similar position after head coach Sonny Dykes made a move at QB during last week's debacle at Oregon. Cal's Jared Goff had been a breakout star leading the nation in passing yards but Dykes gave him the hook after just five offensive series against the Ducks. Cal's five possessions with Goff resulted in a grand total of 16 yards and resulted in four lost fumbles (two were by Goff) and a three and out. Dykes put redshirt freshman Zach Kline on the field to start Cal's sixth possession and he instantly had Cal moving as they crossed midfield for the first time in the game but of course Kline finished the drive by throwing an interception in the red zone. For his trouble, Goff finished 3/6 for 11 yards that were negated by -11 yards rushing and the two aforementioned fumbles. Unlike Apodaca who looked very good in Halliday's stead, Kline struggled plenty finishing 18/37 for 165 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

The two quarterbacks split first team reps on an almost 50-50 basis during the early part of game prep this week but on Thursday Dykes announced that Goff would still be his starter. Further to the contrary of Halliday, Goff doesn't get a chance to feast on a helpless defense this week. The Cougars looked very bad against Stanford last week but the Cougars have the type of defense that looks terrible against great teams but suffocates bad offenses. The Washington State defense that slapped USC silly hasn't gone anywhere, it was just incapable of showing up against Stanford.

The problem for Cal is they simply cannot pass block. Despite an offense built around screens and quick passes, Cal has already allowed 14 sacks in four games. Washington State does not have the best set of pass rushers but they do have a very physical front that has been able to win games but pushing back opposing offensive lines and choking off their opponents room to operate, particularly up the middle of the field. Stanford was able to use its imposing offensive line to neutralize WSU's front but if you honestly expect Cal to be able to replicate Stanford up front then you are either drunk or the biggest Cal homer around. 

For Cal to move the ball, Goff is going to need to put together some good drives early and build some confidence and keep Kline on the sidelines. the key is going to be whether Cal's talented wide receivers can make Washington State's defensive backs miss tackles. That was the real key to the Bears' ineptitude last week. It was not necessarily that they couldn't take care of the ball. After all, Cal committed all five of their turnovers in the 1st quarter. Rather, when Cal did complete passes and when they ran the ball, they weren't able to get any yards after contact which is key in an offense that runs most of its concepts within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. Cal's uncertainty at QB won't matter nearly as much in this game as most think. Rather, this game will come down to whether Bryce Treggs, Chris Harper, Richard Rodgers, Brenden Bigelow, and Cal's other weapons can turn short plays into big gains.

Who should I bet on and who will win?

Home underdogs are always tempting especially in a league with so much parity but you only want to bet an underdog if its a good team and California simply is not. Goff played well enough in his first three games to suggest that last week was just an aberration. After all, Goff has thrown the ball very well in good conditions but was miserable in the cold rain up in Eugene last week. The forecast is calling for a bright and sunny day in Berkeley tomorrow so Goff should return to throwing the way he did in his first three games but conversely that clears the way for either Halliday or Apodaca to throw with ease as well. Cal should be able to score but given the Bears defense, the Cougars will score more. Washington State wins this one, 42-35.

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