Big passing numbers expected in Cal-Washington State game

No. 23 Washington State is playing its best ball in years, winning seven straight games and coming off a blowout of Arizona.

Cal is coming off a blowout, too, except it was on the receiving end.

The Cougars and Bears are seemingly headed in opposite directions, but Saturday's matchup will feature similar Air Raid-style passing attacks that could provide an entertaining nightcap to the day's college football action, kicking off at 10:30 p.m. ET.

Cal, with its “Bear Raid” attack, is second nationally, behind Texas Tech, with 463 pass attempts (51.4 per game). Washington State is third at 455.

“Mike does what Mike is going to do, and he does it well,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, a former assistant to WSU coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech. “And he's done it well for a long time. He's always moved the ball, he's always scored points.”

The Cougars (7-2, 6-0 Pac-12) have won their first six conference games for the first time since 2002, which is also the last time they won seven consecutive games overall. They beat visiting Arizona 69-7 on Saturday.

“Even when we were 0-2, we didn't lose any self-belief in ourselves,” wide receiver Gabe Marks said at a press conference Monday. “We lost belief in you guys because you guys lost belief in us. … We all knew that we were going to be good. It's just that a lot of people jumped off the wagon real quick, which is OK. (We were) 0-2; fans will be fans.”

Cal (4-5, 2-4) has lost three of its past four games, including a 66-27 loss to Washington on Saturday night, when it allowed 704 total yards.

The Bears defense is reeling, ranking last nationally in rushing defense (286.7 yards per game), second-to-last in points allowed (44.4 per game) and 125th out of 128 teams in total defense (527.9 yards per game).

Washington State, on the other hand, has been more stout than usual on defense, especially up front. The Cougars are 21st nationally in rushing defense, yielding 118.8 yards per game. Defensive end Nnamdi Oguayo recorded three sacks last week, and free safety Shalom Luani picked off his fourth pass of the season.

“They're playing with a lot of confidence on both sides of the ball,” Dykes said of Washington State. “Much-improved defensively. They are playing aggressive and they're really trying to force the action.”

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk threw for 311 yards in three quarters against Arizona last week, at one point completing 22 consecutive passes. The Cougars were 47 of 52 passing against the Wildcats.

Falk is No. 2 in the nation with 359.7 passing yards per game. His two top receivers — seniors Marks and River Cracraft — are in the top five in the conference in receptions per game and receiving yards per game. Marks has 10 touchdown receptions.

Cal will counter with quarterback Davis Webb, who is third nationally with 352.9 passing yards per game. Wide receiver Chad Hansen, the most prolific receiver in the country early this season, is back from an ankle injury and seems to be regaining his form.

Hansen delivered five catches for 70 yards and a touchdown against Washington; he is up to 64 catches for 840 yards and nine scores this season.

Two years ago, the matchup of Bear Raid vs. Air Raid produced an FBS-record 1,261 passing yards in Cal's 60-59 victory. The game was decided when Washington State missed a chip-shot field goal as time expired.

Last season was dramatic too, as Cal rallied from 14 down to win 34-28, the victory preserved by a late interception of Falk at the Bears' 10-yard line.

“Whenever us and Cal get together, it's always going to be a hell of a deal,” Marks said. “It's a heavyweight showdown.”

Cal is 0-4 on the road this season, although three of those losses have come by 10 points or less.

Washington State's true heavyweight showdown might not come until the Apple Cup against rival Washington to end the regular season. Those teams enter this week as the only undefeated squads in Pac-12 play.

With a nod to the kickoff time, Leach said the Pac-12 doesn't get the respect it deserves.

“I think we're the best conference this year,” he said. “I think we're still battling time-zone issues to some degree.”