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Analysis: In loss to Cal, Washington State shows it’s too volatile to harness its talent

BERKELEY, Calif. – When Jake Dickert came striding out of the locker room, ready to coach his Washington State team’s second half against California, he saw one of his guys sitting on the bench alone. He went up to edge rusher Brennan Jackson with a few words.

“I said, ‘Hey man, you’re gonna make a couple big plays,’ ” Dickert said.

Jackson made his coach look like a soothsayer. In Saturday’s second half, he got pressure on Cal quarterback Fernando Mendoza and forced a fumble, which his buddy Ron Stone Jr. recovered. Later in the second stanza, he burst through the line of scrimmage to record a half-sack.

With that play, Jackson moved into the top 10 of Washington State’s all-time sacks, a milestone he felt fired up to achieve. When he talked about it after the game, though, he took a somber tone.

There’s only so much pride to take in personal accomplishments when you lose your sixth straight game.

Washington State’s 42-39 loss to Cal illustrated lots of things – among them the fact college football must find a way to penalize feigning injuries – but this above all: The Cougars are too inconsistent to make up for their mistakes, too careless to make up for their lack of depth, too volatile to think they can turn it on at the end and somehow erase all the bad stuff.

They’re also not quite good enough to overcome the absence of top cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, who missed his third straight game in this loss. He was on track to return from injury during the week, but he sat out because he collided with safety Jaden Hicks during Friday’s “run-through,” Dickert said.

There’s a reason why Jackson’s sterling game went to waste. When he forced the fumble, WSU took over at the Cal 17, only to manage a field goal. When he recorded his sack, the Cougars had to punt. Their best players are multitalented . They are also too erratic to harness it.

WSU quarterback Cameron Ward lost three fumbles. His offensive line, which lost left tackle Esa Pole in the third quarter, yielded six sacks. For all the great things they put on tape, like their two-touchdown surge to draw within three points late in the game, they only found themselves in that position because of all the gaffes that led them there.

“You feel like there’s a lot of positive things out there, but Cam’s gotta take care of the ball,” Dickert said. “And he knows that. He’s the one that possesses the ball the most time for our offense, so you can’t turn the ball over. And you can’t give away free points.”

“I feel like I’m the big reason why we were in that situation,” Ward said. “I gave them 14 points by myself. So just gotta take care of the ball. Gotta take care of the ball. If we don’t give up 14 points we end up winning this game. I take a lot on my shoulders, but at the end of the day, I felt like offensively, we had better execution this game, but we just gotta limit turnovers.”

If ever there were a chance to paint a picture of this Washington State season, the bizarre fall from grace it’s on track to be remembered as, the Cougars grabbed the easel.

At times, Ward looked like a guy who could start on Sundays. He made his weekly pressure escape and completed a long downfield pass. He led WSU’s comeback, lobbing a perfect touchdown pass to receiver Josh Kelly, then jumping for the right arm angle to hit running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker, who walked in for the touchdown to trim Cal’s lead to three.

Other times, Ward looked like a guy who needs another year in college. He didn’t just lose three fumbles. He also drifted far back enough in the pocket to make things easier on Cal. He took what should have been an easy quarterback sneak and let the Golden Bears seize control with a scoop-and-score.

Ward is a self-aware guy. He knows his limitations, same as he knows his talent. He’s often too hard on himself, which you see when he takes blame for sacks he could never have avoided. After games like this, though, he isn’t critical of himself so much as he’s just honest.

“I feel like I’ve grown in ball security, especially these two years once I first got here to Washington State,” Ward said, “but it showed up again today that it’s something that I gotta continuously work on. Any time you put your team in a situation like I did, it’s hard to fight out of, and we did. We did end up doing that. But we didn’t execute enough plays as a whole to win this game.”

Then there’s the issue of faking injuries, which hurt Washington State for the second time this season. With 90 seconds left in the game, Ward completed a 14-yard pass to tight end Cooper Mathers, who went out of bounds, stopping the clock at preserving WSU’s chance at completing a comeback, down 42-39.

Except officials stopped the action. They ruled that because there was an injured Cal player on the field during the play, the play would need to be done over.

Upon replay, it appears that right before Ward snapped the ball, a Cal coach instructed safety Patrick McMorris to take a knee with an “injury.” That wiped out the play. The Cougars made up for it two plays later, moving into field-goal range with a pass from Ward to Kelly, so it’s tempting to think it didn’t have much of an impact on the game – but at the time, there was no telling how WSU would respond.

There’s also no telling why officials ruled the play dead. It happened without a whistle. It’s unclear why officials threw a flag for a penalty that didn’t exist. If there was any flag on that play, it was for an unsporting and cowardly act, but clearly that is not against the rules.

It can be argued that there should be no place for this in college football. Officials can remove this problem by penalizing it any number of ways, like an unsportsmanlike penalty, removing the player for the remainder of the series, maybe even a suspension for one half, as is the consequence for targeting.

Washington State has been directly affected by this problem twice this season – another example, when Arizona State tight end Jalin Conyers went down a few weeks ago – but that is not the same as saying the Cougars have lost because of it twice this season. They lost three fumbles before this happened, gave up six sacks before this happened, allowed Cal running back Jaydn Ott to rush for 167 yards long before this happened.

“I thought for the most part we tackled them efficiently well,” Dickert said. “There’s a couple of times he popped out and that’s what good backs are gonna do, but you can’t have explosive run plays.”

Washington State has two regular-season games to go – a home matchup with Colorado on Friday night, and a road test Nov. 25 against Washington in what could be the last installment of the Apple Cup.

To return to a bowl game, the Cougars will need to win both. On Saturday, they illustrated a few reasons why they could do so. They also demonstrated lots of reasons why the Buffaloes and Huskies could cruise. So it goes with an unstable bunch.