BERKELEY, California – Washington State put a stop to a recent trend of misfortune at Memorial Stadium with a 21-6 drubbing of Cal, and anyone watching Saturday’s Pac-12 game could probably sense the Cougars’ turn of luck during a pivotal first-quarter sequence.
In years past, WSU couldn’t seem to catch a break at Berkeley, where it hadn’t won since 2013.
This time, the sun was shining on the Cougars.
Their first punt attempt of the game was blocked, yet moments later, their offense was scoring easily its most memorable touchdown of the season – an early candidate for national play of the year.
At the end – or, what should have been the end – of WSU’s second series, punter Nick Haberer held the ball too long, then booted it right into the outstretched arms of Cal’s Nick Alftin.
The Cougars avoided disaster when edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. alertly darted back toward the loose ball, scooped it up, then turned on the jets to convert the fourth down.
“That was pretty impressive,” WSU head coach Nick Rolovich said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen that happen before.”
Nine plays later, quarterback Jayden de Laura floated a third-and-goal pass high and to the back corner of the end zone. His primary target this year, Calvin Jackson Jr., twisted his body and made a remarkable one-handed catch, tiptoeing inbounds for a 5-yard touchdown.
WSU’s lead grew to 14-6. The Cougars had quickly seized back the momentum, and just like that, Jackson’s highlight went viral.
“I’m sure it’s going to be on ESPN,” Rolovich said. “It better be (SportsCenter) Top 10 or I’m going to have to make a phone call.”
Jackson “got beat up” by teammates “the whole way to the bench.”
“I’ll check social media later,” he said. “Right now, I’m just focused on enjoying this team win we had.”
From there on out, WSU (2-3, 1-2 Pac-12) shifted the themes that typically define Cougs/Cal games. It leaned on defense and suffocated the Golden Bears on a clear afternoon in front of a sparsely populated gathering, most of which had departed by the start of the fourth quarter.
The visitors’ run-and-shoot offense played just well enough to stay in control throughout the second half.
The Cougars snapped a three-game losing streak at Memorial Stadium while also overcoming their tendency this year of failing to close out games.
“This whole team stayed together through everything they’ve been through,” Rolovich said. “We’re getting closer, we’re getting closer. To bust through that level of finishing a game is very important for this program.”
Cal (1-4, 0-2) had only gained about 120 yards and crossed midfield once before a possession late in the third quarter. WSU’s defense made a stop at its 28-yard line and, a drive later, forced a Cal turnover on downs at its 7-yard line to all but ice the game.
WSU tallied four sacks to double its season total. It held dynamic Bears quarterback Chase Garbers to 14-of-30 passing for 152 yards, and Cougs corner Jaylen Watson picked him off midway through the second quarter – just after de Laura had thrown an interception.
“They’ve been doing this all year,” de Laura said of the defense. “We can count on them making stops.”
De Laura, returning from an injury that kept him out of last weekend’s loss at Utah, started on fire out of the chutes, completing 11 of his first 13 passes for two touchdowns – both to Jackson. He spread the ball to five targets and was averaging about 10 yards per pass.
He cooled off afterward, tossing back-to-back interceptions in the second quarter. De Laura went 25 of 41 for 219 yards and three touchdowns.
“Nowhere close to where I should be,” de Laura said when asked to assess his performance. “Once I get healthy – I’m not using that as an excuse – but I’ll feel more comfortable. … I didn’t want to go out there and run too much in the first half. I kinda played it safe. When the time came to make plays, I did it, gave the wide receivers a chance and let them do their thing.”
The second-year starter guided an impressive drive out of the break, a 66-yard series on nine plays that ended when de Laura connected with true freshman De’Zhaun Stribling for an 8-yard score to fashion the final margin.
From there, WSU’s defense bent but did not break.
“We came to the realization that the defense is playing their butts off and it’s time for us to take a step up,” Jackson said.
“We all sat down and we spoke and made sure that, coming into these next few weeks, we need to go hard, because the defense goes hard every day.”
The Bears scored only on their first series. They punted seven times, turned the ball over once and failed to convert three fourth downs. Cal went 3 of 15 on third downs. WSU converted seven of the first 10 third downs it faced.
The Cougs leaned on their passing offense in the first half against a Cal team that entered the game ranked 11th in the conference in passing defense.
WSU fed running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh down the stretch. WSU’s offensive line conceded just one sack to a defensive-minded Bears squad a week after allowing eight at Utah.
Rolovich regretted that WSU punted the ball on four consecutive drives to end the game, netting approximately 50 yards on 24 plays after Stribling’s score early in the third.
“There were times it felt like some of the other games, where we let it get away,” Rolovich said. “But for us to finish it is more impactful for our season and our program.”