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BERKELEY, Calif. – Washington State’s football game against California on Saturday may as well be the Rose Bowl for what it means to the program.

A win and coach Mike Leach’s team is back on track to have a breakthrough season. But if the Cougars lose, they’ll have to take care of business in every winnable game left on the schedule.

Heading into last week’s matchup with Stanford, the Cougars were in an enviable situation. Up against a team with national-championship aspirations, WSU entered the game as the clear underdog with little to lose and much to gain.

As it turns out, the Cougars did have something to lose. Starting quarterback Connor Halliday was knocked out of the game in the third quarter with an apparent hip injury.

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While Halliday practiced this week, there were times when he didn’t seem to be playing at his usual speed. And nothing will be certain until he takes his first hit.

Stanford coach David Shaw was complimentary of the Cougars this week, saying, “Watch Washington State the rest of the year. They’re a good football team; that game with us was tight until we broke a couple of plays late, defensively and offensively.”

It’s true that WSU has been more competitive this season than it has been in years, but the Pac-12 is a tough conference. Utah showed on Thursday night in a 34-27 loss to UCLA that it can hang with the conference’s heavyweights despite poor quarterback play, and Oregon State is coming around.

With games against ranked teams Oregon, Arizona State and Washington left on the schedule, Saturday’s affair in Berkeley will prove pivotal if the Cougars are going to play in their first bowl game since the 2003 season.

California will be a test for the WSU defense, which gave up more points in the 55-17 loss to the Cardinal than in its first four games combined.

California’s Bear Raid offense can pile up yards and points. After WSU gave up 332 yards through the air a week ago, the Cougars will face a Cal team that averages 160 more passing yards per game than the Cardinal.

“We learned from the hole we dug, which was our pass defense,” said Washington State defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “Our rush defense only had about 130 yards given up in three quarters against a good running football team, and that’s good. But we’ve got to work on our pass defense and those challenges we’ll see this week.”

There will certainly be challenges, but if WSU can’t win today, making a bowl game will become a much sterner challenge.

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