PULLMAN – Jake Dickert likes to talk about the tradition at Washington State. There’s a standard at this program, the Cougars’ head coach says, and it’s important to him to uphold it.
“I wanna be real frank: A bowl game at WSU should be celebrated greatly,” Dickert said. “That is absolutely a successful season. I mean that. Regardless of the record, when you get out there and you make a bowl game at our place, I think that’s really big time.”
Discounting the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Washington State has been to seven consecutive bowls. As WSU tries to end its five-game losing streak, time is running out for the Cougars to make it eight. To get there, they will likely have to win this game, a road matchup with California set for Saturday afternoon in Berkeley.
WSU’s final stretch of schedule is hardly kind. The Cougars visit Cal, host Colorado, then visit No. 5 Washington for what could be the last installment of the Apple Cup. They’ll need to win two of those to reach six wins and become bowl-eligible. Barring an upset over the Huskies, the Cougars’ season will come down to these next two games.
Dickert added one note to his comment about his team’s bowl-eligibility.
“We’re not focused on that,” Dickert said. “We’re focused on one game at a time, this opportunity with Cal.”
With that opportunity, Washington State gets a Cal team finding some stability. The Golden Bears have settled on a starting quarterback, redshirt freshman Fernando Mendoza, who has revitalized his team’s offense, helping Cal score 49 points in a loss to USC and 19 in a setback to Oregon. In the loss to USC, Mendoza threw for nearly 300 yards through the air, and he added 48 yards on the ground.
Cal has lost four straight, a skid that includes defeats to Oregon State, Utah, USC and Oregon – all ranked teams, all four of the best in the conference. To describe their past four games as just losses is to paint an incomplete picture. The Golden Bears may be trying to end a four-game losing streak, but they’ve also been playing some of the best in the Pac-12.
The other piece to Cal’s offense, and perhaps the guy the Cougars would do well to slow, is running back Jaydn Ott. He’s fresh off two stellar games: 21 carries for 153 yards and two touchdowns against USC, 20 carries for 93 yards and one score against Oregon. He’s helped the Golden Bears earn a run grade of 88.6, Pro Football Focus’ fourth best in the Pac-12.
“We gotta make sure that we’re staying ahead of them on that side of the ball,” Dickert said. “Because this is a different Cal team. They’re using extreme tempo. They’re going spread. This is their first year kind of doing that from the pro style that they’ve been in the past. The tailback is phenomenal, one of the best in the league. So I think they do a good job of utilizing him and getting him downhill.”
Will Washington State be able to stop him? Check out the Cougars’ last game, a 10-7 loss to Stanford last week, and you might think yes. Check out their previous four games, losses in which they conceded an average of 203 rushing yards per game, and you would say no. WSU’s defense looked light years better against Stanford, but as is the story with this group’s season, whether that unit can keep it up is questionable.
For Washington State, the recent returns have been encouraging. In their loss to the Cardinal, the Cougars recorded their first takeaway in a full month, getting an interception from backup cornerback Jamorri Colson in the final seconds of the third quarter. They also held Stanford to 10 points, WSU’s fewest allowed since permitting nine last year to – guess who? – Cal.
How did that come together? The Cougars started by limiting the run, holding the Cardinal to 75 rushing yards, including an average rush of just 2 yards. They had to shuffle personnel as the game unfolded – because of injuries, Stephen Hall started at cornerback, only for penalty issues to prompt Colson to take his place – but they found a rhythm, which is something promising for a team in desperate need of it.
“I think this defense has stayed confident,” said WSU edge Ron Stone Jr., who is looking for his first sack since his club took down Wisconsin in early September. “I think that’s the one thing that we know what we’re capable of at all times. Like I said earlier, it’s a new week, so all the things that we did last week, all we can do is kind of build off of it. We can’t really rely on what we did last week, because obviously, it’s a new opponent, new team, it’s a new atmosphere, and we gotta come with a new mindset.”