In front of a meager Berkeley, California, crowd that appeared to consist mostly of the relatives of Washington State football players Rickey Galvin and Kalafitoni Pole, two transplants who traded the Bay Area for Pullman, the Cougars earned their first and only Pac-12 Conference blowout win since 2006.
The 44-22 win at Cal in 2013, the second Pac-12 win of Mike Leach’s tenure as WSU’s coach, seemed like a turning point for his then-nascent program. And for a time, it was.
Even against a Cal team that was in the midst of a defense-wide culling through injuries and finished the season 1-11, the manner in which the Cougars’ offense clicked under quarterback Connor Halliday, and the five turnovers forced by the WSU defense, marked a team that was beginning to understand its coach’s orders and possessed the skill to execute them.
The Cougars lost their next three games by a total of 74 points, emphatically quashing all notions of turning the corner. But the win still proved invaluable, as did every other victory in WSU’s 6-6 regular season with the Cougars hanging onto bowl eligibility.
Two years later, WSU (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) has a chance for a similarly liberating win at Cal (4-0, 1-0). For starters, it would be helpful to not give any recruiting fodder to the conference’s other Air Raid program, one that was five wins worse the last time the teams played in California.
And in the context of the entire season, a win this weekend gives the Cougars a foothold in the Pac-12 race, sets up the scenario in which WSU needs just three wins in its final eight games to get to a bowl game and indicates the team is indeed getting better each week.
Furthermore, a win would be the perfect way for the Cougars to stop asking about last year’s loss in Pullman, in which just one point not added to the 119 scored between the teams made the difference.
“I think everybody knows how crazy that game was and how back and forth it was,” linebacker Parker Henry said. “We’re trying to focus on this year, but it’s no secret that last year’s game was pretty nuts.”
There are likely to be a few more people in the stands this year than the 44,682 who were in attendance the last time the Cougars played in Berkeley. The Golden Bears are averaging more than 55,000 fans per home game this year and are likely to see an attendance boom after back-to-back road wins over Texas and Washington.
Although the teams are unlikely to hit the 60-59 benchmark again this year, touchdowns will probably still be in abundance.
While the teams are tied for the Pac-12 lead averaging three sacks per game, WSU and Cal are the worst and fourth-worse teams respectively in the conference in opposing third-down conversions per game.
The two teams have combined for one stop in the red zone in seven games and both are in the bottom half of the conference in scoring defense.
The Golden Bears are favored in this matchup by 17 1/2 points. But with the long odds comes the potential of great rewards and a victory just as cathartic for WSU as the last one.
SATURDAY: Washington State (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) at California (4-0, 1-0), 1 p.m., Pac-12 Network, 710-AM, 1240-AM