Heading into Saturday’s game, I wondered if the game wasn’t something of a crossroads for both the Washington State Cougars and the California Golden Bears. Each team sat at 1-3, and each team was at risk of watching their season circle the drain before it was even half over — the loser would have to finish on quite a run just to secure bowl eligibility, which is an important annual benchmark for programs of the caliber of Cal and WSU.
Surprisingly — at least for this guy — it wasn’t the Cougars who departed Memorial Stadium with their season aspirations on life support.
Games against Cal always have seemed to be a measuring stick for where WSU stands, similar to games against Oregon State or Utah or Arizona. These are peer programs within the conference, programs against which we consistently recruit, and how we perform against them sets a sort of pecking order for this tier of the league.
The Cougars had been at, or even above, the top of this tier under Mike Leach, but slipped a little at the end before Nick Rolovich’s tumultuous run in 2020 and 2021. Cal, conversely, was roundly thought to be on the ascendency over the past few years under Justin Wilcox. At least one respected writer has been pushing them as a conference contender for years.
So, to see the Cougs more or less dominate the Golden Bears was pretty jarring, and perhaps indicative of where the teams’ respective seasons are heading. Cal, fresh off a heartbreaking overtime loss to UW in Seattle, looked emotionally flat and now appears to be in disarray and missing their best chance at breaking through in a North Division that appears wide open.
WSU, meanwhile, secured itself a well-earned break for players and fans from the existential crisis stemming from the head coach’s leadership, something that was put on the backburner in Pullman for at least a couple of days, at least until Nick Rolovich had to answer questions from the media this week.
I’m especially happy for the players, who (naturally) were not surprised by what they pulled off. Nor should they be. If there’s one thing I can give the coaching staff credit for, it’s that they do not seem to have “lost the locker room” — the players have played hard throughout the ups and downs of this season. There are some who would say that effort is the bare minimum we can expect from players, and while I don’t disagree with that on a philosophical level, the reality is that players do quit on coaches they don’t believe in, and it speaks well of their character that the team still seems to be together in fighting for this season.
Maybe that’s something that will make a difference for what they are ultimately able to accomplish over their final seven games.
Or maybe not? It’s always tempting — especially in football, with only 12 data points — to read too much into one particular result, and when a game feels like a crossroads, it’s easy to start thinking that you’ve cleared the hump and are on the other side of whatever problems plagued you.
I’ll just go way out on a limb and say that I have no actual idea what this particular victory means in the big picture of WSU’s season. I’m encouraged by the defense, but I’m going to need to see more than this to believe it’s sustainable. And the offense is still very bad.
So, for now, I’m just going to enjoy a win!
What we liked: Rush defense
Recruiting on the interior of the defensive line has been on the decline for years — since Joe Salave’a bolted for Oregon in 2017, really — and the performances of the eight games over the past two seasons leading up to Saturday did very little to inspire confidence that a sudden turnaround was coming. About the only team that hadn’t run all over us was USC, and that was because they were able to throw all over us.
I was legitimately concerned about what was coming on Saturday; the Golden Bears were bringing the kind of bruising attack that had simply overpowered us in the recent past. Those concerns seemed to be confirmed on Cal’s first drive when the final two runs covered 20 yards, culminating with Christopher Brooks trucking seemingly half the defense.
And then ... it didn’t happen? I’m not going to pretend that I know how they did it. I definitely don’t. But the results were kind of crazy.
Cal’s rushing success rate — basically, a measure of how often they used the rush game to pick up a chunk of yards to stay “on schedule” — was perfectly average. Three times Cal had two or fewer yards to gain for a first down, and three times they failed to successfully run for those yards.
It helped put Cal into passing downs (2nd and 8+, 3rd and 5+) on 41% of their plays — most for a WSU opponent this season. The only other team that approached 40% was USC, but Cal doesn’t have the same kind of passing attack as USC, and the Cougar defense was able to hold up.
I have no idea if this is going to hold up. In general, I’m going to need more than one good showing to be convinced. But it’s pretty cool to think that maybe the defense is heading in the right direction.
Who impressed: Calvin Jackson Jr.
Could there be anyone else? It was Jackson’s effort and talent that provided what turned out to be the winning scores in this game before the first quarter had even ended.
First, Jackson hauled in a short pass in the flat and took it to the pylon with a burst of speed that seemed to catch the Golden Bears flat footed. It was a nice play, but it also was the kind of play that wide receivers make every weekend.
The second touchdown was ... not the kind play that wide receivers make every weekend.
Always wanted to be in sports center Mama I made it https://t.co/7mKVIQ9yFm— ℂ ♠️ (@PrimetimeCeej) October 3, 2021
It’s so cool to see Jackson having the kind of success that he is having this season. When he arrived from Independence CC in 2018, it was thought he’d be an immediate contributor — and he was, as a reserve in a deep receiving corps. Then in 2019, the receivers got even deeper, and the coaching staff elected to manage his playing time by utilizing the 4-game rule and have him redshirt. And last year ... of course, everything was screwed up, and injuries limited him to just one game.
So now Jackson — again, a juco transfer — is in his fourth year at WSU. He’s leading the team in receiving yards (325) and is second in touchdowns (3) and receptions (26) as he plays his final year for his father, who died in March. I’m so happy for him to finally find some consistent success.
What needs work: The offense
I saved this for down here because I don’t want to be a downer after a really great win. But the offense, to put it bluntly, was still bad — and it continued the pattern of fading after a strong start:
1st quarter: 14 points, 142 yards, 25 plays, 5.7 yards per play
2nd-4th quarters: 7 points, 190 yards, 50 plays, 3.8 yards per play
I think it’s worth noting that WSU’s TDs came on their first two drives of the game and then their first drive of the second half. It seems like there’s a script, and then when the script runs out, there are no answers.
After the loss to Utah, Nick Rolovich lamented the plays he felt the team left on the field. The team just doesn’t seem to be getting much closer to making those plays with any consistency. The Cougars are now averaging just 23 points — which includes 44 against Portland State — which would be the lowest since Mike Leach’s first season (20.4).
We were promised an innovative offensive mind when Rolovich was hired. That just hasn’t materialized. The 38 points in his first game as coach — against Oregon State — remains the high water mark against FBS competition. Maybe the Cougs can recapture some of that mojo this weekend against the Beavers, whom they have a seven-game win streak against.
About that ...
Up next! Oregon State Beavers
The Beavers are rolling right now, having knocked off USC and Washington in consecutive weeks. Their season-opening loss at Purdue is looking a little puzzling right now, but as we know better than most: How the first game goes is not at all determinative of how the rest of the season will go.
It’s felt for a couple of years now that Jonathan Smith was building something worthwhile in Corvallis, but he just couldn’t get them over the hump. Now, it’s feeling like they might finally be close to finished pushing that boulder up the hill.
How they handle visiting WSU this weekend will tell us a lot, I think. It would seem to be a prime letdown spot. That said, there’s nobody who will be on the OSU sideline who has beaten WSU in their current capacity, and that certainly has to be a motivating factor.
As big as last week was for both teams, there’s a good chance this week tells us just as much about where each team is heading as they both hit the halfway mark of the season.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. PT from Pullman for Homecoming. The game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network.