PULLMAN – Football players are urged to keep short memories.
You can bet the Washington State Cougars got the full rundown on that subject sometime before midnight last Oct. 13 in the visitors’ locker room at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California.
The Cougars got another reminder the next day when they regrouped in Pullman, and the message was likely drilled home in meeting rooms and on the practice field at various points the following week.
At least in the short term, WSU players successfully discarded their shocking 37-3 defeat to Cal last season – one that gave the Cougars their first loss in 2017, knocked them down seven spots from No. 8 to 15 in the Associated Press Top 25 and delivered a blaring wake-up call for a team that hadn’t faced much resistance up to that point.
The loss didn’t linger; WSU whacked Colorado 28-0 eight days later.
As the 2018 Cougars prepare for the next opponent on their schedule, flashbacks of the 2017 dud at Memorial Stadium are imminent – but they aren’t necessarily unhealthy.
“You’d kind of be foolish to not use it as fuel,” senior middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer said Tuesday.
Pelluer was four games removed from a season-ending foot injury when the teams clashed last year.
Yet the game is still a disturbing memory for WSU’s defensive captain as the Cougars (7-1, 4-1), ranked No. 10 in the AP Top 25 and No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, prepare to play the Golden Bears (5-3, 2-3) at 7:45 (ESPN) Saturday night at Martin Stadium.
“I didn’t play in that game, but they had bragging rights over us for a year, saying they were better than us,” Pelluer said. “So it doesn’t matter who we play, especially at home. We don’t lose at home, but definitely we’ve got to get revenge on these guys for last year’s team.”
The Cougars carry the country’s fourth-longest home winning streak and are gunning for their 11th consecutive victory at Martin Stadium. Not many teams in the Pac-12 have bragging rights on WSU, either, especially those in the North Division. The Cougars have five consecutive wins over Oregon State, four in a row against Oregon and now three consecutive against Stanford after a 41-38 win on The Farm last Saturday.
If the Cougars can overcome the two Pac-12 teams that have given them the most trouble in recent years, Cal and Washington, they’ll have a good chance to win the North Division for the first time in program history.
The Golden Bears are their first roadblock.
Overcoming Cal means overcoming the defensive mind of Justin Wilcox, who has stymied the Cougars three of the last four times he’s faced them as a defensive coordinator (at UW and USC) and as a head coach (Cal).
Wilcox and the Golden Bears were greedy in the 2017 game, forcing seven WSU turnovers.
They intercepted the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer, Luke Falk, five times and held the Cougars to their lowest point total in 84 games under head coach Mike Leach.
“I think they just play hard and play together. They’re definitely well-coached,” WSU inside receivers coach Dave Nichol said. “But playing hard and playing together are two key ingredients for any defense, and they do it pretty good.”
Leach offered his thoughts on Cal’s ball-hawking defense, which continues to be opportunistic in 2018 with a conference-leading 12 picks.
“They run to the ball, and I think they’re good on defense,” he said. “I think they’ve probably gotten better on defense. I thought they were good last year.
“But the biggest thing is, they run to the ball and they’re real fundamentally sound, where they line up and what they execute. They don’t really break their package for you; they do what they do.”
Accompanying Wilcox on the Cal sideline is another coach the Cougars know well – mainly because he, too, has been a thorn in their side. That’s offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, the longtime Eastern Washington head coach who dialed up 45 points when the Cougars hosted the Eagles in 2016 and orchestrated Cal’s 37-point outing in Berkeley last season.
At 24.9 points per game, the Golden Bears aren’t exactly surging on offense this season. They’ve spent much of the year toggling between two quarterbacks, Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain, who’ve posted a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13-9.
But Baldwin has always kept WSU’s defense guessing with his offensive schemes, and the Cougars aren’t expecting anything different.
“There’s just a lot of stuff going on. They’re not afraid to put in a whole new offense in a week,” Pelluer said. “(Baldwin) is a heckuva coach, heckuva OC, so we’ve just got to prepare for anything and they do a lot of things. They’re kind of a conglomerate of a bunch of Pac-12 schools, so we’ve just got to be ready for anything.”
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