PULLMAN – Rarely have football fans clamored for seats at Martin Stadium in recent years, but lines were expected to start forming at 6 this morning – 131/2 hours before kickoff – for Washington State’s game with California.
The prospect of watching a pair of 2-4 teams duke it out was not the impetus for the early arrivals. The first 10,000 fans through the gates receive bobbleheads in the likeness of Mike Leach, the first-year coach of the Cougars.
Some WSU fans might turn their bobbleheads into Leach voodoo dolls if the Cougars lose tonight. A three-game losing streak and spotty play throughout the first half of the season have frustrated a fan base already testy due to a string of losing seasons.
“I’ve said it many times: We’re a great team,” safety Deone Bucannon said after WSU’s latest defeat.
The Pacific-12 Conference standings beg to differ. The Cougars are last in the North Division – albeit just one game behind California – after finishing the past three seasons in the cellar.
The Golden Bears also have struggled at times this season, but they’re coming off an impressive 43-17 victory over then-No. 25 UCLA. California is favored by 7 points against the Cougars, who floundered offensively but shined on defense last week in a 19-6 loss at then-No. 14 Oregon State.
Leach describes the Bears as “good, quick, physical; a better team than their record.”
UCLA coach Jim Mora came away impressed with the Bears’ pass rush.
“They were relentless,” he said. “They were maniacal.”
The same can often be said for WSU’s blitz-heavy pass rush.
“Defensively, they’re playing very hard, really getting after it,” California coach Jeff Tedford said. “Long (linebacker Travis Long), they’re putting him in a lot of different places and trying to disguise him.”
The Cougars rank among the nation’s leading teams with 19 quarterback sacks. The Bears came into the week ranked last in the nation with 29 sacks allowed.
That bit of encouraging news for WSU supporters is offset somewhat by the fact that Cal has made 16 sacks, and the Cougars have given up 21.
Like Oregon State, the Bears can be explosive on the ground or via the air. Mobile quarterback Zach Maynard enjoyed a banner passing day against UCLA (25-for-30 for 295 yards and four touchdowns).
WSU linebacker Darryl Monroe, one of several promising youngsters on the Cougars’ defense, said defensive players plan to continue with the extra preparation time they put in before the Oregon State game, at the urging of coaches.
“We started with defensive meetings earlier,” Monroe said. “Before tutoring, after class, before class, 9 o’clock at night, 9 o’clock in the morning.
“We were also in the film room. We were always meeting with each other. We were always passing notes, taking notes.”
CALIFORNIA (2-4, 1-2 PAC-12 CONFERENCE) AT WASHINGTON STATE (2-4, 0-3)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Martin Stadium, Pullman
TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 770-AM, 104.3-FM.
The series: California leads, 43-25-5. The Bears have won the past seven meetings, including a 30-7 decision last year.
What to watch: Both teams have shaky offensive lines and ferocious pass rushes, so quarterbacks enter Martin Stadium at their own risk. Cal’s Keenan Allen and WSU’s Marquess Wilson are two of the premier wide receivers in the nation, and Allen is also a top punt returner. The Bears often give the Cougars fits with their athleticism. Last week, Bears cornerback Kareem Jackson came off the bench after a teammate was injured and earned co-national defensive back of the week honors by making three interceptions in a 43-17 rout of then-No. 25 UCLA. The Cougars, riding a three-game losing streak and in danger of missing out on a bowl game for the ninth straight year, desperately need a shot of confidence heading into a bye week that will be followed by their only back-to-back road games (at Stanford and Utah).
The pick: Washington State 27, California 24.
21Keenan Allen (WR-PR)6-3/210Junior
Speedster averages 11.4 yards per catch, 14.1 yards per punt return.
15Zach Maynard (QB)6-2/185Senior
Despite poor pass protection, has passed for 1,348 yards and 9 TDs.
91Deandre Coleman (DE)6-5/309Junior
Former Garfield (Seattle) prep All-American has 29 tackles.
9C.J. Anderson (RB)5-11/210Senior
Team rushing leader (386 yards) shares ball-carrying duties with two talented teammates.
89Travis Long (LB)6-4/245Senior
Tied for third in the nation through Thursday with 71/2 quarterback sacks.
12Connor Halliday (QB)6-4/189Sophomore
Still starting after being yanked twice last week during 3-interception performance.
86Marquess Wilson (WR)6-4/185Junior
Second among active FBS players with 98.2 career receiving yards per game.
20Deone Bucannon (SS)6-1/192Junior
Third in Pac-12 with 47 tackles; tied for first with 4 interceptions.Howie Stalwick, contributing writer