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Washington State defense bottles up Cal, Cougar offense seals 28-9 victory with late surge

PULLMAN – Washington State’s defense bounced back with a well-rounded performance. The Cougars’ offense finished the job.

WSU forced nine Cal punts and the Cougar Air Raid put together back-to-back scoring possessions to pull away in the fourth quarter of a 28-9 homecoming victory over the Golden Bears on Saturday afternoon at Gesa Field.

After collapsing in crunch time last weekend and squandering a two-score lead in a loss to Oregon, the Cougars (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) rebounded with a wire-to-wire win over the Bears (3-2, 1-1). WSU held the visitors from Berkeley out of the end zone until early in the fourth quarter.

“I’m proud of the team and how they responded with some outside noise: ‘What will the Cougs do? How will they respond?’ WSU coach Jake Dickert said.

“They were anxious to get back on the field, and I thought they had tremendous energy for 60 minutes.”

Cal had one of its few productive drives early in the final quarter, connecting on a couple of big passing plays and capping the series with a short rushing touchdown to trim WSU’s lead to 14-9. The Cougars, who failed to finish last weekend when Oregon started to rally, had an answer this time.

Quarterback Cameron Ward fired a 37-yard touchdown to veteran slot receiver Renard Bell to seal the result.

“We felt like we got complacent last week in that time of the game,” Ward said. “It’s a learning experience for all of us. We went through that, and we don’t want to have that feeling again.”

The Cougars’ defensive front, as it had done throughout the contest, bottled up Cal’s offense on the ensuing possession. Ward found tight end Billy Riviere for a short scoring pass to fashion the final score.

WSU didn’t register a sack last weekend, but it tallied four against a Cal offensive line that couldn’t hold up against the Cougars’ pressure packages and four-man pass rush. The Bears went three-and-out on five of their 12 possessions and punted on four consecutive drives in the middle of the game.

Cal tailback Jaydn Ott, coming off a 274-yard showing in a win over Arizona, managed 69 yards on 16 carries. He was held under 20 rushing yards in a first half that was headlined by defense. WSU led 7-3 at halftime.

“We didn’t allow him to get into any comfortable rhythm throughout the game,” WSU edge rusher Brennan Jackson said of Ott. “We were hitting him when he was trying to fight for extra yards, and that kinda wears on a running back, breaks down that confidence.

“He didn’t feel comfortable, and that offensive line didn’t feel comfortable with those stunts and how we were moving. They had playmakers on the outside but didn’t have the time to get it to them.”

Cal managed five passing plays of 15-plus yards. The Cougars’ secondary showed plenty of lapses against Oregon but played admirably while WSU’s defensive line supplied steady pressure.

“Controlling the vertical pass game” was an emphasis this week, Dickert said. “If you can make Cal go the long, hard way, we felt like we had a shot. That’s what our guys did. They executed really well.”

WSU punted three times and Ward threw an interception into double coverage in the end zone midway through the second quarter. The Cougars’ offense found a groove in the second half. Ward lofted a 47-yard pass to Bell in stride to set up a 17-yard touchdown toss to slotback Robert Ferrel, who also had a 34-yard punt return in the second quarter to kick-start WSU’s first scoring series of the day.

The Cougars connected on 11 passing plays of 15-plus yards. They had made it a point this week to improve their production on deep balls.

“It was an emphasis. We felt like we didn’t stretch the field through the previous games,” Ward said. “(Offensive coordinator Eric Morris) had great play-calling, getting our playmakers in one-on-one matchups.”

Ward completed 27 of 40 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns against two interceptions – the only mistakes of an otherwise sharp outing. He took one sack behind an offensive line that played one of its best games of the year.

“I feel like we haven’t put up a full game yet, and that’s exciting to me because I know what this offense and this team can do once we put up a full game,” Ward said.

With the offense in the red zone and looking to build upon its 14-3 lead, Ward scrambled out of the pocket and threw an errant pass toward the goal line, picked by Cal safety Craig Woodson. Ward regrouped and completed nine of his last 11 passes for two scores.

“He didn’t feel bad for himself and didn’t have bad body language,” Dickert said. “Cam is learning how to be a leader of this football team, and I’m excited about that resilience. He could have folded. We don’t have quit in this team. Then he went and made a big play. That’s what a good team does.”

Cal couldn’t capitalize on the takeaway, and WSU drained 5 minutes off the clock on its next series before the Bears opened the final quarter with their first touchdown drive.

Ward found De’Zhaun Stribling on a clutch third-down screen pass, which went for 32 yards, then dialed up a high-arcing pass down the sideline in Bell’s direction.

“That’s probably my favorite play of the game,” Ward said. “I wasn’t even supposed to throw it right there. It was supposed to be a handoff read, but that’s the style I play with.

“I always play that way and trust myself as a gunslinger every day. Renard made an unbelievable catch. I love having him on the team.”

Bell topped all receivers with 115 yards on eight receptions. Nine other Cougars had receptions. Ferrel added 79 yards on six catches. WSU’s ground game went into the half with zero net yards, but the lanes started to open up as the game progressed. Tailbacks Nakia Watson and Jaylen Jenkins combined for 93 yards on 19 carries.

“You saw in the fourth quarter that we had some explosive runs,” Dickert said. “We need that in this offense. It can’t just be passing and play action, and Cam dropping back. It needs to be more balanced.”

WSU picked up a boost heading into a challenging portion of its schedule. The Cougars meet sixth-ranked USC on the road next weekend before matchups against Oregon State and No. 12 Utah.

“We learned a lot about ourselves going through a little adversity,” Dickert said. “I think it was a positive thing to come back (after the Oregon game) and go out there and score and close the game. To go out there and finish shows the type of team we can be.

“There’s a lot left for this team and it’s very hungry. They’re very focused.”