Washington State continues Pac-12 title chase against Cal

Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew (16) leads the nation in passing yardage per game.Photo: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports (file photo)

Sports Xchange

Washington State enters Saturday's game against California at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., with grand postseason aspirations and the Golden Bears are playing to just to get to a bowl game.

The eighth-ranked Cougars (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) take on California (5-3, 2-3) with their sights set on a Pac-12 championship and potential spot in the College Football Playoffs. The Golden Bears, who opened as 10 1/2-point underdogs against the Cougars, are looking to build on last week's 12-10 upset of then-No. 15 Washington in Berkeley, Calif.

"I thought you saw a lot of toughness out there, just grit and determination," Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. "We weren't perfect, but we found a way to win the game.

"I loved it. Obviously, you want to go out and score every time, but we knew against Washington's defense, it was going to be tough. There were going to be times when 2 or 3 yards were good."

On the other side of the Bay in Palo Alto last week, Washington State dramatically beat Stanford 41-38 on a last-minute field goal.

Cal's defense figured to be strong under Wilcox, a former defensive coordinator at USC, Washington and Wisconsin, but the Golden Bears have not been consistent for most of the season. In the last two weeks, however, it appears they're starting to find their groove defensively.

In wins over Oregon State and No. 15 Washington, Cal allowed only two touchdowns and 17 points. The Golden Bears didn't give up more than 250 yards on offense to either team, allowing the Beavers to pile up 241 and the Huskies 250.

Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's unit is especially strong against the pass, ranking first in the Pac-12 and eighth nationally, allowing 165 yards per game through the air. Cal also is tied for the conference lead with 12 interceptions.

The Golden Bears face their toughest test going against Heisman Trophy candidate Gardner Minshew II, who leads the nation in passing yardage, averaging 397.9 yards per game, and is completing 71 percent of his passes. He may be small by NFL quarterback standards at 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds -- and he may be labeled a system quarterback playing in Mike Leach's Air Raid offense -- but Leach would not have another quarterback.

"As far as production and performance, I think he's the best (quarterback)," Leach said. "I guess folks are kind of dancing around that a little bit. It doesn't really affect anything that we do. I think he needs to improve and I think he needs to improve as fast as he can, but you know all of these comparisons and stuff, he's got the best numbers so he's the best one."

Washington State's Air Raid offense had little success the last time the teams met as the Golden Bears pummeled the Cougars 37-3 last year in Berkeley. Former Washington State quarterback Luke Falk was intercepted five times in the loss for the Cougars, who entered that game ranked No. 8 with a 6-0 record.

"That's the worst game that everybody's played under me. It's not like Luke played bad and everybody played great," Leach said. "Luke didn't sack himself nine times. Luke didn't give up the number of points as far as marching up and down field. We didn't play good anywhere -- Luke didn't punt one yard."

A concern for Wilcox will be Cal's offense going against a formidable Washington State defense. Aside from scoring 49 points against second-tier team Oregon State, Cal is only scoring 15 points per game against Pac-12 opponents.

That means if Minshew and his receivers are affected by the rainy conditions that are forecast or Cal's improving defense, the Cougars' defense could keep the Golden Bears' offense in check.

Cal quarterbacks Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain, who've shared starting duties, have thrown as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes. Neither could get Cal's offense into the end zone against Washington. The Golden Bears had to rely on a pick-six and two field goals to get their 12 points.

Garbers has received most of the playing time the past two games, and that's expected to continue this week.