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When ball didn’t bounce Washington State’s way, Cougars stayed resilient in win over Cal

California Golden Bears quarterback Brandon McIlwain (5) runs the ball against Washington State Cougars safety Jalen Thompson (34) and linebacker Jahad Woods (13) during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 3, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 19-13. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – For No. 10 Washington State, Saturday night’s 19-13 win over California was all about weathering a storm. Multiple storms, actually.

The stop-and-go rain showers that pelted Martin Stadium constantly kept Gardner Minshew and his offense out of rhythm, and the Pac-12’s top scoring offense fell three touchdowns shy of matching its 40 point per-game clip.

Then there was the second storm – the one generated by Justin Wilcox and his Cal defense, which seems to game plan for Washington State’s Air Raid better than anybody else in the conference. It’s unlikely even the rival Washington Huskies will be able to walk out of this year’s Apple Cup claiming they’ve given up just 22 points to the Cougars and two touchdowns in their last two meetings. But that’s what the Golden Bears have accomplished now.

And on a night when the Cougars never could get the right bounce – literally on a few occasions, too – they had their mental fortitude tested by the football gods, who weren’t throwing the home team many bones in a back-and-forth game – no, back-and-forth war – at Martin Stadium.

“This time a year especially, if you play a schedule like we do, where everybody’s good, there’s none of these breather teams that exist in some conferences,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “… It’s good as far as sticking in there and being confident. Keeping composure when it’s tough in a game, I think those are huge assets.”

The Cougars, now 8-1 and 5-1 in conference play, have a record that would indicate Pac-12 dominance, but five of their six league wins have been decided in the fourth quarter – as was their only loss, to USC – and four of those were decided by six points or less. And while they’ve shown a penchant for playing well late, it took something extra to squeak out a six-point victory over the Golden Bears Saturday night.

Penalized seven times for 80 yards, the Cougars were frequently playing at the mercy of the referee’s whistle. A second-quarter targeting ejection sent Dominick Silvels back to the home locker room, even though video evidence seem to suggest WSU’s Rush linebacker hit Cal tight end Ian Bunting legally, on the chest and visibly below the helmet.

“I can’t talk about any of the calls, you guys are going to have to speak for those of us who are silenced,” Leach said. “But you saw the game and so positive and negative, you can address all that.”

The Cougars lost a defensive starter and gave up 15 precious yards of real estate that moved the Golden Bears down to the 21-yard line, but WSU didn’t crack and mitigated the damage of Silvels’ ejection by only allowing Cal a field goal.

Similar circumstances would’ve caused other teams to fold – perhaps even last year’s WSU team, which went into a game in Berkeley ranked No. 8 in the nation and came out of it a 37-3 loser.

“Football is a tough sport in general; a lot of battling,” linebacker Dillon Sherman said. “Adversity comes your way over and over again, but our team us super close. We are a family, we really are. Other teams say that, but I really believe that we all love each other like brothers. So, when we get down and are grinding in those types of situations, we just look to one another and say, ‘Let’s get this.’”

The Cougars had to punch through more adversity in the third quarter.

Right when it looked like Willie Taylor III was going to return an interception 40 yards for a touchdown and put WSU up 20-10, the Rush linebacker dropped the ball on the 3-yard line and it tumbled into the end zone and took a few more odd bounces, slipping through Jahad Woods’ hands before rolling through the back.

But the Cougars eliminated what could’ve been a 14-point swing by holding Cal to a field goal on the other end after the Golden Bears got the ball back on a touchback. More signs of the late-game mettle that’s played such a large role in WSU’s five-game Pac-12 win streak.

“Especially for a team like ours when you look at the roster we’re really pretty young, so I think there’s kind of a maturity there as far as hanging in there that’s really good to see, and we’ve got to always shave the ability to do that,” Leach said. “That’s why you play games, cause unexpected things happen. I did think we were very persistent throughout the game even though there were times that it could get frustrating.

“We were a steady team which is generally a mark of a good team.”

And now one that’s bordering on great.