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Smothering Washington State defense posts three shutout quarters in 21-6 victory over California

BERKELEY, Calif. – With less than 8 minutes remaining in the first quarter Saturday, California running back Christopher Brooks took an inside handoff up the gut of Washington State’s defense, broke through multiple Cougars tacklers and stretched the ball into the end zone, giving the Golden Bears a touchdown that cut the deficit to 7-6 at Memorial Stadium.

One play earlier, Chase Garbers heaved a deep pass down the left sideline to Kekoa Crawford, who won a 50/50 ball against WSU’s Daniel Isom and set the Golden Bears up in the red zone.

By the time the first half ended in Berkeley, an impressive two-play sequence on Cal’s initial possession was mostly an afterthought. Crawford’s 44-yard reception and Brooks’ 11-yard touchdown run accounted for 55 of the 104 total yards Cal accumulated in the first half. The Golden Bears, who repeatedly found themselves stifled by WSU’s defense, managed just 49 yards on the other 26 plays.

WSU’s defense was prone to the occasional breakdown, but there was no letdown from Jake Dickert’s unit as the Cougars held California scoreless through the final three quarters of a 21-6 victory at Berkeley’s Memorial Coliseum.

It was the lowest point total allowed by WSU since a 2018 shutout of San Jose State and the lowest against a Pac-12 opponent since the Cougars held Colorado scoreless in 2017.

“I think they’ve played well most of the year, to be honest with you,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said. “I think there’s a real commitment, a real unity in that group. I think the preparation is high level. I think for this whole team to stay together through everything they’ve been through, we’re getting closer.”

The Cougars held the Golden Bears scoreless through the game’s final 43:44 by keeping Garbers and Cal’s productive passing offense in check. The fifth-year Cal quarterback and fourth-year starter entered the game as the Pac-12 leader in total offense and pass completions per game, while the Golden Bears came in ranked second in the conference at 440.8 yards per game.

Cal’s sure to drop a few places after managing just 273 total yards against WSU – the fewest allowed by the Cougars since the 2018 game against San Jose State – and Garbers was smothered by the pressure applied by WSU’s defensive front, completing just 14 of 30 passes with no touchdowns and one interception.

It marked the first time since 2019 Cal’s QB finished a game without a passing or rushing TD, ending an 11-game streak. The dual-threat Garbers also finished with 11 carries for 14 yards after taking four sacks – two coming from edge rusher Brennan Jackson.

“I think it starts with the way we practice and we’ve been putting a large emphasis on communicating, talking through everything, all the change of strengths, motions, everything,” said WSU nickel and Spokane native Armani Marsh, who led the Cougars with 12 tackles while also contributing a half tackle for loss. “Just talking and making sure we’re on the same page. Playing fast and just executing.”

Garbers passed for only 152 yards one week after the Cougars held Cam Rising to 137 during a loss to Utah in Salt Lake City. WSU’s defense hasn’t allowed a passing touchdown since a Week 3 loss to USC in Pullman.

“With the defense we’re running and everything, we need to be able to tackle in space and holding off the deep routes, taking that away and forcing teams to pass those checkdowns,” Marsh said. “When we do, we just have to come down and make the play.”

The play was made more times than not, alleviating the pressure on Jayden de Laura and WSU’s offense, which did enough to secure a 14-6 halftime lead and added insurance in the second half when de Laura hit De’Zhaun Stribling for his third touchdown pass.

Not that it was needed. The Cougars, who held Cal to 4 of 20 in third- and fourth-down situations, kept the Golden Bears off the scoreboard early in the fourth quarter despite driving down to WSU’s 7-yard line. Cal crossed the 50-yard line on its next drive, but only made it as far as WSU’s 44-yard line when Garbers couldn’t convert on fourth-and-11.

“The defense has been doing this all year, every game,” de Laura said. “We can count on them making stops.”