BERKELEY, Calif. — Washington State’s football game against Cal on Saturday might as well be the Rose Bowl for what it means to the Cougars.
With a win, coach Mike Leach’s team is back on track to finally have a breakthrough season. But if the Cougars lose, they’ll have to dig deep to take care of business in every winnable game left on the schedule.
Heading into last week’s matchup with Stanford at CenturyLink Field, the Cougars were in an enviable situation. Up against a team with national championship aspirations, WSU entered as the clear underdog with little to lose and much to gain.
But when starting quarterback Connor Halliday was knocked out of the game in the third quarter with an apparent hip injury, WSU almost lost its season in a game it didn’t seem likely to win.
Stanford coach David Shaw complimented the Cougars in the week after the game.
“Watch Washington State the rest of the year,” he said. “They’re a good football team. That game with us was tight until we broke a couple of plays late defensively and offensively.”
It’s true that WSU has been more competitive this season than it has in years, but so has the rest of the Pac-12 Conference. In Thursday night’s loss to No. 12 UCLA, Utah showed it can hang with the conference’s heavyweights despite poor quarterback play. Oregon State is coming around.
With ranked teams Oregon, Arizona State and Washington left on the schedule, Saturday’s affair in Berkeley will prove pivotal if the Cougars are to play in their first bowl game since the 2003 season.
Not exactly the type of situation where you want uncertainty surrounding the most important position. While Halliday practiced this week, there were times when he didn’t seem to play at his usual speed, and nothing will be certain until he takes his first hit.
Saturday’s game also will test the defense, which allowed more points in the 55-17 loss to Stanford than in WSU’s first four games combined. If defensive coordinator Mike Breske can repair the dam that broke last week, the Cougars still will boast one of the better defenses in the conference.
But if Cal’s “Bear Raid” offense can pile up some points on WSU’s defense, then the team could start to resemble last year’s squad, which allowed 425 yards per game. After giving up 322 yards through the air a week ago, the Cougars will face an opponent that averages about 150 more passing yards per game than Stanford.
“We learned from the hole we dug, which was our pass defense,” Breske said. “Our rush defense only had about 130 yards given up in three quarters against a good running football team, and that’s good. But we’ve got to work on our pass defense, and those challenges we’ll see this week.”
There certainly will be challenges in facing the Golden Bears on the road with a potentially hobbled quarterback and a bloodied defense. But if WSU can’t win Saturday, then making a bowl game will prove a much sterner challenge.
WASHINGTON STATE (3-2 OVERALL, 1-1 PACIFIC-12) AT CALIFORNIA (1-3, 0-1)
1 p.m., Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, Calif.
TV: FS1. Radio: 710-AM.
The series: California leads, 44-25-5, and has won the past eight meetings. WSU’s last victory over Cal came in 2002, a 48-38 win in Berkeley. The teams have not played in Berkeley since 2009. They met in 2011 at AT&T Park in San Francisco while the Golden Bears’ stadium was being renovated.
KEYS TO A WSU VICTORY
Win the turnover battle: Saturday’s battle could come down to which team can best take care of the football. WSU has nine takeaways this season and must pad that number to leave Berkeley with a victory. The pressure will be on Cal’s freshman quarterback, Jared Goff, to keep the ball out of the waiting paws of Cougar defenders.
Get after the quarterback: Goff has been baptized by fire this season, and the Cougars should look to continue the trend. Cal ranks last in the conference with 15 sacks allowed, or 3.75 per game. WSU ranks 11th in the Pac-12 with 1.4 sacks per game, but it will have an opportunity to increase that number this weekend.
Cut out the distractions: While Washington State already has one road victory this year (against USC), the Cougars have not traveled well the past few years. WSU has won just two conference road games since the start of 2011. The Berkeley trip could be especially difficult for Mike Leach’s squad, as a number of players hail from Northern California. For the Cougars to win, those players must stay focused while playing in front of family and friends.
Control the ground game: There has been a significant uptick in the number of yards WSU has gained via a handoff this year. The Cougars average 60.6 rushing yards per game, more than double last year’s average of 29.1. Still, if WSU holds to its season average of just 18 rushes per game, then it will fail to take advantage of a porous Cal run defense. The Golden Bears have given up 262.5 yards per game on the ground, worst in the conference.
McClatchy news services