PULLMAN – Early-season momentum is at stake Saturday when Washington State hosts Cal for a Pac-12 clash between seemingly well-matched teams, both looking for a boost in reputation.
WSU (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) nearly broke into the national rankings last weekend but collapsed down the stretch in a 44-41 loss to Oregon. The Cougars aim to regroup against the Golden Bears and get back on course before a challenging stretch of their schedule – after Cal, WSU plays some of the Pac-12’s top teams: USC, Oregon State and Utah.
“After a loss, you want to show everybody we’re not still in that mindset,” Cougar cornerback Chau Smith-Wade said. “We’re not in that losing mindset. It’s not really a loss – it’s what we learn from our losses. … We’re gonna learn from that and come out on top.”
The Bears (3-1, 1-0) are eyeing a statement win on the road one week after they made a strong impression, rumbling past Arizona 49-31.
The Cougars and Cal kick off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field for WSU’s homecoming game and the final leg of its three-game homestand. The Cougars are four-point favorites.
“This is a great league and you gotta bring your ‘A game’ each and every week,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said. “You gotta make sure you’re ready to go and prepared. Cal’s proven that and hopefully we’ve proven that.
“We’re both in the same boat of really wanting to win, and this will be a big Pac-12 game.”
Despite last weekend’s result, the Cougars came into the week feeling confident about their potential. After all, WSU outplayed then-No. 15 Oregon for most of the day before squandering a 12-point lead in the final 6 minutes.
“There are a lot of learning opportunities that come from that game,” slot receiver Lincoln Victor said. “At the end of the day, we just beat ourselves. After these past four weeks, I think we’ve shown the world what type of team we are. We’re not going to let one game define our season. I think it was a plus that we lost to them early. … It just comes down to playing 60 minutes of football. Not 55, not 59 – playing a full game and playing for one another.”
The Cougars won’t get complacent after several flaws were exposed by the Ducks during their Pac-12 opener. WSU’s passing coverage faltered. Its defensive front couldn’t impact the game, as it had done in each of the past three weeks. The Cougars’ running game was stagnant and turnovers were an issue. Dickert said the letdown performance has left his team eager to respond.
“They’re hungry. They’re starving,” he said. “Our team is really excited to keep getting better and to get back out there and hopefully play our best this weekend.
“Adversity reveals what your culture really is. We have a bunch of guys that are focused.”
The pressure will be on WSU’s defensive front, generally considered the team’s strength, to rebound after an underwhelming outing. Cal features a budding star at running back in true freshman Jaydn Ott, one of the nation’s most productive ball-carriers, who racked up 274 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries last week against Arizona.
The Bears take a balanced approach on offense. Their ground game has been efficient, but protection issues have hampered their passing attack.
“We didn’t get to the passer much (last week),” WSU edge rusher Brennan Jackson said.
The Cougars didn’t register a sack against Oregon’s elite offensive line, which has yet to allow one this season. Cal has given up 12.
“That’s what we kinda pride ourselves on,” Jackson said. “So, this week is going to be a great bounce-back for us.”
Oregon’s deep-passing game exploited WSU’s secondary. Cal’s passing offense is much less high-powered. The Cougars could be returning to health in their defensive backfield, too. Strong safety Jordan Lee is “hopeful” to play after missing two games with an injury, according to Dickert.
Cal’s offense has improved since last season, but defense remains the Bears’ calling card under sixth-year coach Justin Wilcox.
“They got a bunch of good young wide receivers and a really, really good young running back,” Dickert said. “But (defense) has been his focus and I think, defensively, they play hard and aggressive. That’s the makeup of what you’ve seen in his past and what he’s done in his history.
“They’re a tough team to beat. They’re proving that and they’re coming in here with a lot of confidence, too.”
Making good use of linebacker blitzes, the Bears have had multiple sacks in every game this year. Their defense has limited every opponent under 150 yards rushing. Their passing coverage showed some lapses last weekend when Arizona aired it out in an attempt to make a comeback, but the Bears’ secondary is in the top 50 nationally in pass defense efficiency rating.
The Cougars’ passing game is coming off its best showing of the season. Quarterback Cameron Ward and WSU’s receivers have made the most of their quick-passing game. The Cougars would like to stretch the field with deep balls a little more often, though.
“I just can’t wait until Saturday to really show the people what we can do again,” Victor said. “It’s another opportunity … to just go out there and show what type of culture we have on this team. … It’s a perfect game for us to show the world who we are and it’s an opportunity for us to progress from what happened last week.”
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