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Washington State RBs Leo Pulalasi, Djouvensky Schlenbaker shine in dreary loss to Cal

Washington State running back Leo Pulalasi takes a carry against California on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif.  (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)

BERKELEY, Calif. – Leo Pulalasi couldn’t find where to dump his dirty laundry. Somewhere in the bowels of California Memorial Stadium, the site of his Washington State team’s sixth straight loss, he came out of the visitors locker room and tried to find the bin.

Pulalasi, the true freshman running back who might be the single most promising young guy on this roster, finally found it. He navigated around a few teammates, all milling about and packing up after their 42-39 loss to Cal, and tossed a few items into a beige-colored box. Then he joined his buddies in leaving the place.

With outings like the one he submitted Saturday night, Pulalasi might need to get used to finding the dirty garment box.

All told, Pulalasi tallied 66 yards on 12 carries, the most by a Cougar in one game against an FBS opponent since last year’s Apple Cup. That helped WSU total 125 rushing yards – the team’s most against an FBS opponent since last year’s win over Arizona.

Pulalasi’s performance would have been encouraging for any team in the country. For this team, a Washington State club that had never found anything resembling a rhythm on the ground in the first 10 weeks of the season, it registered as remarkable.

“It was awesome to see,” WSU quarterback Cam Ward said. “Leo has waited his turn this entire season. Doesn’t get the reps that he really wants since he got here, but to see him run the ball the way he did hard, downhill, it was inspiring for sure. Because he gave us a little bit more drive, knowing that we can run a little bit more inside zone, outside zone with him and Djouvensky.”

Washington State might feel down about this loss, and perhaps rightfully so, dropping its sixth straight after starting out a spotless 4-0. But the Cougars did piece together a rally, which mattered for this game, and they got two scintillating showings from their freshman running backs, Pulalasi and Djouvensky Schlenbaker, a redshirt freshman.

Schlenbaker carded 42 rushing yards on nine carries, posting a long rush of 9 yards. He also hauled in the touchdown that helped WSU trim Cal’s lead to three, a play-action reception that pushed his receiving totals for the game to three catches for 15 yards.

If there are two players on WSU’s roster who combine for brighter days, they haven’t shown themselves.

“I think he just showed a lot of heart out there, a lot of grit when he was running the ball,” WSU edge rusher Brennan Jackson said. “I don’t think he let the moment become too big for him. I’m just really proud of him and who he is as a kid, and I think he’s gonna grow up to be a really good player here.”

Pulalasi and Schlenbaker didn’t just meet the moment. They did so in the absence of several running backs ahead of them on the depth chart. Starting running back Nakia Watson played on Saturday, but he remains limited by an injury. Backup Jaylen Jenkins was dismissed from the program earlier in the season and walk-on Dylan Paine, who filled in for Jenkins, is out with a high-ankle sprain he suffered during his group’s loss to Oregon on Oct. 21.

So in came the two freshman backs who finally gave Washington State’s team what it had been missing all this time: a credible running game.

The absence of one had limited the Cougars’ offense in meaningful ways, prompting defenses to back off the line of scrimmage and take away their passing game, sticking to that approach as long as WSU showed an inability to run the ball.

Are those days over? Pulalasi and Schlenbaker might have solved the issue in the short term, which means WSU’s final two regular-season games, a home matchup with Colorado on Friday and a road game against Washington on Nov. 25.

“I thought Djouvensky was very decisive and downhill,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said after Schlenbaker took the lion’s share of carries against Stanford. “I think that’s what we’ve been missing a little bit at that position. He does it with max capacity, max effort, and he executes the best he can.”

For his part, Pulalasi did the same – but not just with the ball in his hands. In the second quarter, Ward laced a pass to tight end Cooper Mathers, who hauled it in at Cal’s 1 yard line. Two Golden Bears met him. Then the pile formed. Then Pulalasi ran in and joined, pushing Mathers forward, over the goal line and into the end zone for a touchdown.

If Pulalasi did anything more promising than running through tackles, that was it.

This was Pulalasi’s second appearance of the season. He can play each of the Cougars’ final two regular-season games and retain his redshirt. His team might need it – for this year and for ones to come.