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Washington State lands one spot shy of AP Top 25 ranking after comfortable win over Cal

Washington State coach Jake Dickert high-fives Cougar players after WSU defeated Cal 28-9 on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Washington State, coming off a narrow loss to a top-15 team in the country, rebounded with a convincing victory over Cal. Have the Cougars proven enough to crack the national rankings?


WSU (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) was just shy of an AP Top 25 ranking when the poll was released Sunday morning. The Cougars collected 91 votes to land at No. 26.

The Cougs jumped three spots followaring their 28-9 thumping of Cal on Saturday at Gesa Field. They occupied the fourth position in the poll’s “receiving votes” category after giving up a late lead in a 44-41 loss to Oregon on Sept. 24.

Up next for the Cougars: a major challenge on the road against the Pac-12’s top-ranked team. WSU will meet the USC Trojans (5-0, 3-0) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at L.A. Memorial Coliseum. The Cougars opened as 14-point underdogs.

Five Pac-12 teams are ranked in the AP Top 25 poll – No. 6 USC, No. 11 Utah, No. 12 Oregon, No. 18 UCLA and No. 21 Washington. The Bruins were unranked last week but climbed into the poll after taking down then-No. 15 UW.

The Cougars maintained their upward trajectory on Saturday with a wire-to-wire win.

“If I could use one word, it’s ‘hungry,’ ” WSU nickel Armani Marsh said Saturday when asked about the team’s state of mind heading into the meat of Pac-12 competition. “We have big goals and big dreams as a team. We know it’s not going to be easy … but we’re putting in that work and understanding that winning is hard. So, when we do win, we celebrate it, but also we’re not getting comfortable. You can’t do that, especially in this conference. Everyone has a really good team.”

WSU’s defense pestered Cal all day, and the Cougars’ slow-starting offense found its footing down the stretch, closing the deal with two consecutive scoring drives in the fourth quarter. It was an encouraging bounce-back performance for a WSU squad that failed to finish the week before, squandering a 12-point lead in the final six minutes against the Ducks.

“This is the prettiest, ugly, gutty win that we knew we had to have – any way possible,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “That’s why that celebration in the locker room is special right now.”

Postgame notes

• WSU recorded four sacks and seven tackles for loss against a Golden Bears offensive line that ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in run-blocking and pass-protection grades, according to Pro Football Focus performance metrics. The Cougars’ defensive front did not produce a sack against Oregon. WSU is tied for second nationally in TFLs (45) and ranks seventh in the FBS with 18 sacks. Virginia transfer defensive tackle Nusi Malani logged his first-career sack. Senior linebacker Daiyan Henley made a hard hit in the backfield to boost his TFL total this season to 9.5 – second in the country.

• Senior slotback Renard Bell caught his 18th career touchdown catch to move into a tie for 10th on the program’s all-time leaderboard for TD receptions. The seventh-year Cougar set season highs with 115 yards and eight catches. It was the sixth 100-yard game of Bell’s career.

• Senior slotback Robert Ferrel made his first start as a Cougar and made a strong case to keep that first-string spot. The Incarnate Word transfer totaled 79 yards and a touchdown on six receptions, adding a 34-yard punt return in the second quarter to set up WSU’s first TD. In three games this season, Ferrel has recorded 193 yards and two scores on 17 catches. He missed WSU’s preseason and the first two games of the year with a foot injury. With Ferrel established as a reliable playmaker, the Cougars are testing slotback Lincoln Victor at outside receiver. Victor, lining up at his new position, caught a 13-yard pass on a third-and-10 in the second quarter.

“I feel like we were missing a key part of our offense, which is (Ferrel),” said WSU quarterback Cameron Ward, who played alongside Ferrel over the past two seasons at UIW, “someone who can be a shifty player, a dynamic player from the slot. I feel like we needed that from Rob, and he’s bringing it to the table.”

• Ward completed passes to a season-high 10 receivers as the Cougars rotated their pass-catchers frequently. Slot receivers combined for 207 yards on 16 catches. The outside receivers totaled 131 yards on seven catches. Tight end Billy Riviere made a grab and running back Jaylen Jenkins tallied two. Reserve slot Josh Meredith made his first-career reception in the third quarter.

“I feel like we have one of the best receiving corps in the country,” Ward said.

• Riviere caught his first-career touchdown pass, a 1-yarder on a fourth-and-goal play late in the game. Riviere’s score was the first by a Cougars tight end since 2011, when Andrei Lintz snagged a TD versus UNLV. True freshman Andre Dollar, who started at TE, had a chance to claim that distinction one play prior, but couldn’t haul in a third-and-goal catch. Ward, who throws with his right hand but is ambidextrous, delivered the pass on target with his left hand.

“I practiced it all week,” Ward said. “If I had the right look, I’d throw it left-handed. (Offensive coordinator Eric Morris) knows my play style, he knows I’m going to fool around in practice. But if it works, it works – you can’t get mad at it.”

• Strong safety Jaden Hicks, a second-year freshman, led the Cougars with 10 tackles – his third consecutive game with double-digit stops. Hicks is filling in for injured veteran Jordan Lee, who suited up for warmups but was held out of the game.

• WSU announced an attendance of 23,021 for its homecoming game – the lowest turnout of the Cougars’ four home games this season. WSU hosted a sellout crowd of over 33,000 for its matchup with Oregon.