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Plenty at stake for Cougars

BERKELEY, Calif. – Washington State’s football game against Cal today may as well be the Rose Bowl for what it means to the program.

A win and coach Mike Leach’s team is right back on track to 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, the Cougars were in an enviable situation. Up against a team with national championship aspirations, WSU entered the game as the clear underdog with little to lose and much to gain.

Or so it appeared.

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 probably wasn’t going to win.

Stanford coach David Shaw was complimentary of the Cougars in the week after the game, saying, “Watch Washington State the rest of the year. 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. Utah showed in its seven-point loss to UCLA on Thursday night that it can hang with the conference’s heavyweights despite poor quarterback play, and Oregon State is coming around.

With games against ranked teams Oregon, Arizona State and Washington left on the schedule, today’s game in Berkeley will prove pivotal if the Cougars are going to play 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 be playing at his usual speed. And nothing will be certain until he takes his first hit.

It will also be a test for the defense, which gave up more points in the 55-17 loss to the Cardinal than in WSU’s first four games combined. If defensive coordinator Mike Breske can repair the dam that broke last week then the Cougars will still boast one of the better defenses in the league.

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 332 yards through the air a week ago, the Cougars will face an opponent that averages more than 160 more passing yards per game than the Cardinal.

“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 will certainly be challenges in facing the Bears on the road with a potentially hobbled quarterback and a bloodied defense. But if WSU can’t come up with the win today, then making a bowl game will prove a much sterner challenge.