PULLMAN – The nation’s 10th-ranked team did it the ugly way Saturday night – and that may even be an understatement considering everything that happened in a 60-minute window at Martin Stadium – but the Cougars will head into the 11th week of the college football season still with just one loss and the clear-cut leaders in the Pac-12 North.
On an off-night for WSU’s Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, Gardner Minshew dialed up a late scoring drive for the Cougars, completing four passes before throwing a 10-yard touchdown to Easop Winston Jr. to lead the Cougars past a gritty California team, 19-13, in front of a sellout crowd in Pullman.
WSU, No. 10 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings improved to 8-1 and 5-1 in the Pac-12, with its fifth consecutive win and 12th straight at Martin Stadium. The Cougars go on the road for the final time this year next Saturday when they visit Colorado (5-4, 2-4) in Boulder. The Golden Bears dropped to 5-4 and 2-4, squandering an opportunity to claim their first postseason berth under second-year coach Justin Wilcox.
“I thought it was going to be a war and it was,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “Cal has been playing really good lately. As the season has gone on I think they have gotten better and better. It came down clear to the end and I was proud of our guys for sticking in there and finding a way to win when it’s tough.”
“It’s hard to line up and do it over and over when folks are gunning for you. We kept our composure and we did it.”
The Cougars were stingy on defense all game and it paid off in the fourth quarter when they snuffed out one of Cal’s most threatening drives. Skyler Thomas intercepted a jump pass from Brandon McIlwain when the game was tied at 13-13, and even though the Cougars didn’t capitalize on the turnover, it gave them a shot of confidence as they got closer to the finish line.
“We try to get turnovers every week,” Thomas said. “We were just saying we were about to get one. Coach was like, ‘Yeah, it’s going to come your way, it’s going to come your way, just make the play when it comes there.’”
On a night when the Pac-12’s best offense couldn’t get a whole lot to go its way, Thomas’ pick gave Minshew and his unit a lift, too.
On the decisive drive, the WSU quarterback completed a 23-yard pass to Jamire Calvin, then hit Winston for 24 yards to set the Cougars up on the 10-yard line. Winston broke past his defender and Minshew threw a soft pass to the back of the end zone, giving WSU a 19-13 lead with 27 seconds left.
Minshew, the country’s leading passer, finished 35-of-51 passing with 334 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
“You’ll take a win any way that we can get it,” Minshew said. “Obviously we have a standard that’s higher than what we played at tonight, but it was great to see at different times of the game, each phase stepped up.”
Minshew and the Cougars moved down the field at a brisk pace on the game’s opening drive, but the Cougars were stuffed three times when they got down to the 9-yard line and redshirt freshman kicker Blake Mazza was brought on for a 29-yard field goal that made it 3-0.
Uncharacteristic of WSU’s graduate transfer QB, it took Minshew the better part of four quarters to throw his first touchdown, but just 14 minutes to throw his first pick. It was Evan Weaver, the Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep grad, who hauled in Minshew’s tipped pass – Weaver’s second pick in as many games – and set up Cal’s first scoring drive.
“The defense played hard, they compete and they know what they’re doing,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “They can do some good things at times, but we obviously didn’t play well enough to win.”
The Golden Bears executed a slow, methodical drive to score their first points of the game and four minutes after Weaver’s interception, Cal quarterback Chase Garbers found fullback Malik McMorris wide open in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown.
Cal’s lead held for all of four minutes before WSU responded with its first touchdown. Max Borghi set up his own touchdown, taking the first two carries of the drive 19 yards, and the freshman running back kept his legs churning on an 11-yard reception that put the Cougars on the 5-yard line. Borghi took it the rest of the way, pushing his way into the end zone for a rushing touchdown that made it 10-7.
Courtesy of two personal fouls on the Cougars – an out of bounds hit from safety Jalen Thompson and a targeting call on Rush linebacker Dominick Silvels – the Golden Bears were able to move into field goal range on their last offensive drive of the first half and Greg Thomas tied the game at 10-10 with a 42-yard kick.
Had it not been for Travell Harris’ kick-returning savvy, 10-10 could’ve been the score going into the half. The redshirt freshman receiver returned the kickoff 46 yards and a 28-yard pass from Minshew to Winston set up a 36-yard field goal from Mazza that give the Cougars a three-point lead at the break.
The Cougars could’ve extended their lead to 10 points early in the third quarter, but a bizarre sequence of events transpired when Willie Taylor III jumped a passing route to intercept Garbers near the right sideline. Taylor III returned the ball 37 yards to Cal’s 3-yard line, but lost control of it before he could cross the plane. Jahad Woods tried to pounce on the fumble as it dribbled into the end zone, but the ball rolled through the back of the end zone for a touchback.
Shortly after squandering the pick-six, WSU gave up a 35-yard pass from Brandon McIlwain to Moe Ways that set the Golden Bears up for a game-tying 46-yard field goal.
But those were the last points the visitors would acquire and Thomas’ interception on McIlwain killed an otherwise promising Cal drive with 7:34 to play.
“We were in a position where we had a chance and an opportunity, if I make a little better decision, we have a chance,” the Cal QB said.
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