The scoreboard reflected a 19-13 win for No. 10 Washington State on Saturday night. But only a couple of key plays allowed the Cougars to celebrate a win over the Golden Bears.
The first game-turning play came on defense when Cal (5-4, 2-4 Pac 12) had driven down to the Washington State 12-yard-line with 7:34 to play in a game that was tied at 13.
The defensive line forced an errant pass by Cal quarterback Brandon McIlwain and WSU safety Skyler Thomas went up, caught it and got a foot down.
“That was definitely a huge play we really needed,” WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew said. Thomas “is a guy who typically can’t catch a cold, but man, he sure came up when we needed him to. I was so proud of him and how our defense battled all night.”
Thomas, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore safety, saw the ball floating his way.
“I kind of thought it was going to go out of bounds. I saw it sailing, kind of, so I’m like, ‘I’m going to go up and try to get it.’”
The interception kept the game tied and allowed the offense to take chances without the added pressure of playing with a deficit.
“I felt great,” Thomas said. “We never give up. We are never out of the fight. I love winning close games because you really work for it.”
Minshew’s arm provided the opportunity for the second set of plays that allowed Washington State (8-1, 5-1) to remain in the driver’s seat for the Pac 12 North.
After the defense forced a Cal punt, Minshew and the offense got the ball at the WSU 31-yard-line with only 2:39 to play. With just over a minute to play, Minshew hit Easop Winston Jr. on a fade for a 24-yard gain to the Cal 10-yard line.
Minshew looked over and found Winston, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior receiver, again in single coverage and let it fly. Winston made the grab for what turned out to be the game winner with 32 seconds left in the game.
“I can’t say enough how good he is and how hard he works on that route,” Minshew said of Winston. “Once I saw it was one-on-one with him, I was going to take it.”
Winston, who had a highlight reel 89-yard touchdown game-winning touchdown against Utah, said the route he snagged the touchdown on against Cal is one he has run thousands of times in practice.
“Coach Leach, If there is one thing I remember he says is, ‘Make routine plays,’” Winston said. “For me it was just trying to make a routine play for my team. I was glad I got that one.”
But it’s one thing to make a catch. It’s another to do it on national television to win a game that could decide the outcome of the Pac-12.
“Doing it on this level is like a dream come true,” said Winston, who transferred to WSU in 2017 from City College of San Francisco. “I’ve dreamed of moments like that, like literally. To be able to come up for my team is great but … I just try to do my part.”
Leach said Winston, who led the team with 92 receiving yards on seven catches, continues to find himself in game-winning situations for a reason.
“He’s getting better and better,” Leach said of Winston. “He’s one of our most improved players without a question. And then the other thing is he has a lot of skill as far as running routes and setting routes up. Yeah, he did an impressive job on both of those” catches.
Minshew, who finished the night 35-of-51 passes for 334 yards and the touchdown to Winston, said winning always feels good. But it’s more rewarding to win a game that could have gone either way.
“You know it comes down to one or two plays,” he said. “When the margin of victory is that small, it makes it really, really sweet.”
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