A couple of weeks back, I talked about the role that sequencing has in our perception of events. If you were among the folks who were unnerved by Washington State’s feckless second half against Colorado State, then you should be feeling pretty good after what the Cougs did to California on Saturday.
It was a satisfying win, due in no small part to the lack of the notable drama that we’ve come to expect in games against the Golden Bears. Sure, the game was tight throughout the first half, such that some of us were becoming convinced that Justin Wilcox just has our number no matter who is calling the plays or what offense we are running.
But the defense was smothering Cal so thoroughly that it felt as if all that needed to happen was for the offense to figure some things out and the team would be able to pull away. On the heels of last week’s big performance against Oregon — which had been building for weeks — it felt like the smart money was on Eric Morris and Cam Ward to get it done.
That they did — and with the quickness. First drive of the second half: Four plays, 75 yards, 1:09 ...
PLAY THE DAMN FIGHT SONG.
Not pictured, of course, is Renard Bell’s 47-yard reception that put them in this position. It went like that for most of the second half, where only the Cougs’ own mistakes (and we’ll definitely talk about those in a bit) could slow them down — Bell also had a 37-yard TD on a gorgeous throw under pressure by Ward, and even the rushing attack got into the action on the final TD. I don’t know enough about Xs and Os to know exactly what adjustments were made; perhaps there weren’t any, and the team just executed better. Whatever it was, it definitely worked, as WSU piled up 312 yards on 8.2 yards per play to win going away against an overwhelmed Cal.
The killer sequence came in the fourth quarter, when Cal finally showed some life. With the Cougs having sputtered a little after the early TD, thanks to a mind-boggling interception by Ward (I promise, we’ll get to that) and a drive that stalled out at midfield, the Golden Bears hit a couple of deep passes from Jack Plummer (who, I should note, was pretty damn impressive despite running for his life all day) to Jeremiah Hunter to set up a Jaydn Ott TD.
EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US IN THAT MOMENT: “Uh oh. Here comes the Cal Bulls--t!”
But this is the sort of situation where this team has proven its mettle again and again this season. When lesser teams might have clenched their butts, the Cougs answered back in emphatic fashion with another TD of their own — again, in just four plays: Incomplete pass, six-yard completion to Ferrel, 32-yard screen to De’Zhaun Stribling, 37-yard bomb to Bell.
PLAY. THE. DAMN. FIGHT. SONG.
But that wasn’t enough. The defense wanted to stomp Cal out — and they did. The Golden Bears desperately needed another TD, so they went into their trick play bag. Unfortunately for them, we’ve got Brennan Jackson, who effectively ended the drive with one of the team’s seven tackles for loss, including four sacks (which could have been more):
The Golden Bears finally were falling apart, and the offensive line was finally ready to take advantage: On the ensuing drive, WSU picked up 53 yards on the ground on three consecutive plays to move all the way to Cal’s 2-yard-line. Four plays later (it would have been three, if not for Andre Dollar dropping Ward’s left handed pass in the end zone), the game was permanently out of reach at 28-9 with six minutes to go.
It was that sequence — Cal TD - WSU TD - Cal disaster - WSU TD — that proved to be decisive. That’s exactly the sort of thing the better team should do down the stretch to put away an inferior opponent, and finishing that game strong should make you feel pretty great.
Now, I’m not going to try to ascribe a huge amount to dealing with Cal in this fashion, mostly because we don’t have a lot of evidence that the Golden Bears are particularly good. However, there is a lot of evidence that teams sometimes struggle to bounce back from tough losses (looking at you, Oregon State), and when a team starts a game slowly, a sort of malaise can kick in. But the defense played well out of the gate, and the offense was composed enough to stick with it and find its footing in time to definitively show which team is superior.
As I said last week, games against Oregon don’t typically define our seasons. I took some stick for that in other places, but I really believe it: Yeah, we all want to win Pac-12 championships, but at a school where winning 8-10 games means you’re among the best in school history, taking care of business against Cal is a must. The Cougs did just that.
What We Liked: College Football Mental Health Week
See that ribbon above Jake Dickert’s heart? That’s the ribbon for College Football Mental Health Week, an initiative spearheaded by the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation. WSU is one of 115 schools participating in the event, which runs from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8. The ribbons also were on the back of players’ helmets.
According to the website:
Participating schools have committed to at least one of the following during the week: showcasing a lime green ribbon on all players helmets with a “3” in the middle to honor Tyler Hilinski and remember those lost and those suffering in silence; encouraging students, parents, alumni, and fans to participate in showing solidarity, eliminating stigma around mental health by holding three fingers in the sky during the first play of the third quarter; playing a Hilinski’s Hope PSA at the CMHW games; participating in Hilinski’s Hope’s: Online Mental Health Course to help reduce the stigma of seeking help for mental health concerns, and provides a new way of thinking about mental health; participating in a social media campaign; participating in an internal assessment to evaluate how universities are following best practices in terms of mental health programs and include talks and trainings on campus for players, coaches, and staff.
I am absolutely thrilled beyond belief that WSU elected to take part in it again this year, for all the obvious reasons. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can participate individually, check this out. I remain in awe of the work that Mark and Kym Hilinski have done in this area.
Who Impressed: Renard Bell
Once upon a time, all the Pac-12 SB Nation sites used to exchange Q&As with each other every week before their games. Most of the sites have died, and I don’t have much time in my life to write for our own site, let alone other people, these days. But I always make time for the fellas at Write for California (née California Golden Blogs) because they do great work and they’re just A+ people.
That’s all a set up for this thing I wrote for them last week:
Which player on offense should Cal fans know about?
It’s really all about Cam, to be honest, but let’s talk for a minute about one of my favorite players: Receiver Renard Bell. Between a freshman redshirt and extra COVID season eligibility and a season-ending injury last year, he’s in his seventh season at WSU, having signed with Mike Leach in 2016. TWO THOUSAND AND SIXTEEN. I’m sure he’s older than some of the grad assistants. And while all the receivers have made significant contributions this season, it’s Bell’s that bring me the most joy. Beyond being an absolute joy of a human, he’s WSU’s most explosive player, a speedster from the inside who is a threat to take it to the house at any time. Offensive coordinator Eric Morris gets the ball into his hands in a variety of ways.
BOOM. Bell ended up with eight catches on 10 targets for 115 yards and that spectacular TD. Morris and Ward have clearly looked for opportunities to get him loose. On the first big catch, Bell ended up matched up with a safety, which is a no-contest; on the TD, he blew by a corner whose safety got caught looking in the backfield on play action.
I’ll never get tired of watching him play, and I love that we got one more year with him.
- Robert Ferrel: I wasn’t sure what the Cougars were getting in Ferrel, who transferred to WSU with Ward from UIW. It turns out, he’s quite good! He’s taken over the inside receiver spot opposite Bell, and he is killing people in space. Kinda makes you wonder what impact he might have had on the offense had he not missed the first couple of games with a toe injury suffered in the offseason. He also had some really good punt returns, including a 34-yarder that set up a short field for the first TD of the game — having to only go 20 yards to score sure was nice at a time when the offense was struggling.
- Brennan Jackson: The funny thing is that Jackson only finished with two tackles, and his only tackle for loss was the enormous play above. However, the big defensive end was consistently in Cal’s backfield, harassing Jack Plummer all afternoon. He was credited in the official stats with one QB hurry, but it sure felt like more than that.
What Needs Work: Those very dumb interceptions
Even as the offense has really taken off over the past two games, the interceptions are holding it back from getting to a level that we all want to see. When you throw the ball as much as we do, you’re going to throw some interceptions — that’s just a trade-off that you’re going to have to be comfortable making, and I am.
For example: Ward’s first interception on Saturday was of the variety that I chalk up to “well, those happen.” Should he have known the safety was lurking? Probably. But it appeared he thought he had looked him off, he obviously had not, and the safety got some depth to make the play. It sucks, but if that’s the only interception on the day, it’s fine. I also think it’s pretty likely that these kinds of interceptions get fewer and farther in between as Ward gets more experience.
However, the ones that have come on balls that never should have been thrown absolutely have to be eliminated. And there have been a number of those this season — the second interception on Saturday is the perfect example, while the interception against Colorado State (in which he threw back across his body to the other side of the field) also comes to mind.
Ward has now thrown eight interceptions on the year, and WSU ranks 118th as a team in the metric. The Cougs are now -4 in turnover margin (115th), making their 4-1 start even more remarkable after finishing +11 (9th) last season.
Conversely, USC has 12 interceptions. The Trojans are first in turnover margin.
Up Next: No. 6 USC Trojans
Oh hey, lookie there! It’s the Trojans!
In a matchup between two of the youngest and fittest coaches in the Pac-12 (seriously, when do these people find time to work out??), the oddsmakers and bettors don’t think much of the Cougars’ chances — USC opened as a 10.5-point favorite in many places, and the line has swelled to 13 and even 14 everywhere.
That’s pretty interesting, because the last time the Trojans faced a team with WSU’s profile, they barely escaped Corvallis with a win. It’s probably notable that this game is at The Coliseum — WSU’s last time there for the foreseeable future, if ever — but still ... two touchdowns sure seems like a lot.
A blowout isn’t off the table, particularly if WSU turns the ball over and can’t get pressure on Caleb Williams. The Cougars have faced this kind of athleticism at wide receiver one other time this season, and the Ducks went bonkers. But the Cougs are 4-1 against the spread this season, with their only loss coming against Idaho.
Just something to think about.
Kickoff is at 4:30 p.m. PT on Big Fox.