Bears must avoid Cougars’ trap in Pullman

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On the bumpy, desolate Pac-12 road, Pullman could very well be the Cal football team’s blind spot.

With the Big Game on the horizon and last week’s big win in their rearview mirror, the Bears’ Saturday evening date with Washington State is the definition of a trap game.

Look ahead to No. 17 Stanford — or feel the hangover of its first league win, a 43-17 shellacking of then-No. 25 UCLA — and Jeff Tedford’s club could be in for a surprising result.

On paper, it is the Bears’ easiest remaining game of the season. Sitting quietly in last place in the Pac-12, the Cougars are winless in conference play and not likely to be favored in any future games this season. Washington State is not the worst team in the league, though; Colorado, with its 118th-ranked defense, holds that distinction.

Then again, the Buffaloes do have a Pac-12 win, three weeks ago over — guess who? — the Cougars.

Washington State’s offense is utterly one dimensional. Its 312 passing yards a game ranks in the top 15 nationally, but its ground attack produces just 41.3 yards a game, which equates to approximately two Brendan Bigelow carries.

The Cougars’ defense isn’t much better. Ranked 10th in the Pac-12, Washington State allows more than 30 points and 455 yards each week.

Then there’s the quarterback situation. Head coach Mike Leach is sticking by Connor Halliday as starter despite the 6-foot-4 sophomore’s three picks last week. Halliday has already equaled last season’s touchdown total of nine, but he has just as many interceptions.

Cal’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week Kameron Jackson, coming off a three-pick performance, must be drooling over those numbers.

With a coach calling his seniors zombies, Washington State is a team in disarray. That’s probably what the Bruins thought of the Bears when they arrived in Berkeley last week only to get shocked and destroyed by a fiery, angry Cal squad.

Fueled by Zach Maynard’s five touchdowns, Richard Rodgers’ 129 receiving yards and C.J. Anderson’s 151 rushing yards, the Bears turned the sprinklers on at Memorial Stadium Saturday, flooding UCLA’s momentum and cooling down what had been a scorching hot seat for Tedford — but only for the time being.

The winners of seven against the Cougars, the Bears could show up at the Palouse complacent and coast through the first half before waking up. Few would be surprised if Cal plays down to Washington State’s level; whether it’s a near-upset of now No. 8 Ohio State or a close call against FCS club Southern Utah, the Bears have a history of playing to their opponents’ caliber.

Cal coaches and players say they are focused at the task at hand, but they always say that.

Even if they are indeed taking it one game at a time, not lingering over the UCLA win or the looming Stanford game, the Bears still struggle on the road. The last time Cal won an away game was Thanksgiving break 2011.

Regardless of the one win between the two teams combined, the stakes are still high. It might be Washington State’s best shot at a league win — at home against a shaky Cal squad that could be due for a letdown after its season’s signature win.

For the Bears, a win has them gearing up for the Big Game knowing a third consecutive victory would put them at .500 on the season, no longer such a long shot for the postseason. But lose and even the rain from the Pullman night sky won’t be able to extinguish the flame of a reignited hot seat and a lost season.

Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at [email protected]