BERKELEY, California — The best version of this Washington State team shined through more often than it had at any point this year.
In the preseason, fans were promised a stalwart Cougar defense, a veteran-laden unit that would be as talented as any in the Pac-12. That notion rang true throughout WSU’s 21-6 defeat of Cal on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
WSU’s offense was expected to have a knack for explosive, highlight-reel plays. That hasn’t really been the case this season. But the sporadic moments of high-quality offense in Berkeley were not wasted by late stagnation.
The Cougars (2-3, 1-2 Pac-12) played their most complete game and never lost the lead in winning here for the first time in eight years.
“We know what we’re capable of and we know what we can do in this conference,” said slot receiver Calvin Jackson Jr., who leads this week’s rewind.
Jackson Jr. goes viral
If you ask ESPN, there was not a more impressive sports play on the planet Saturday than Jackson’s second touchdown reception of the first quarter.
On a third-and-goal from the Bears’ 5-yard line, WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura floated a rainbow pass toward the grad student from Florida, who had a step of separation on his defender. With little room to spare in the back corner of the end zone, Jackson adjusted to the ball’s trajectory, twisting his body and somehow hauling the ball in with his right palm, tucking it away while tapping a toe inbounds.
Jackson’s jaw-dropping catch landed at No. 1 on Saturday’s edition of SportsCenter Top 10. The highlight clip was shared on social media by almost all major sports media outlets.
Jackson got the news Sunday morning and took to Twitter.
“Always wanted to be (on) sports center,” the JUCO transfer and fourth-year Coug wrote. “Mama I made it.”
WSU coach Nick Rolovich called it.
“I’m sure it’s going to be on ESPN. It better be Top 10, or I’m going to have to make a phone call and let people hear my mind,” he said after the game. “That’s a helluva play.”
Jackson walked reporters through the sensational catch, which many Cougar fans are calling the best they’ve seen in years.
He first praised the play call by offensive coordinator Brian Smith and quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann, then credited de Laura for making the throw with two Cal defenders approaching fast on a sellout blitz.
“We got the look we wanted. Believe it or not, I’m surprised Jayden got the ball off because he got a little pressure coming in, and he just threw it up,” Jackson said. “When I saw the ball in the sky, I was like, ‘There’s no way I can get two hands on it, so let me see if I can maneuver my way to get one on it.’ Once I got one on it, my next thing was getting that foot down. I didn’t know how close I was to the sideline, so I just quickly put that foot down and got it in.”
Apparently, the officials couldn’t believe it. A referee who stood about 15 feet away from the play signaled incomplete while Jackson pleaded his case. After a short review, the call was reversed and Jackson was swarmed by his teammates.
“Their reaction was crazy,” he said. “I came to the sideline and got beat up the whole way to the bench.”
Rolovich didn’t have a clear view of the reception as it happened on the far sideline.
“Across the field, it sure looked pretty,” he said.
The second-year coach paused his postgame news conference so he could examine the catch on film and provide a more complete analysis. A Cougar media director pulled up a video of the play on his phone and handed it to Rolovich, who let out an “ooh” and an “ahh” as he admired Jackson’s dexterity.
“Look at the awareness with the feet,” Rolovich said. “That’s as good a catch as you’re going to see.”
In crunchtime, WSU defense stands firm
The Cougars extended their lead to 21-6 on their first series of the second half when de Laura found rookie De’Zhaun Stribling for an 8-yard touchdown to conclude an impressive nine-play, 66-yard march downfield.
The offense sputtered afterward, finishing the game with four consecutive drives ending in punts. The Cougs netted 47 yards on 24 plays on their final four drives, picking up three first downs.
WSU’s offense went quiet in the second half of its losses to USC and Utah, but a staunch Coug defense prevented another late collapse, curbing a Cal offense that entered the contest second in the Pac-12 at 440.8 yards per game.
“Their defense beat our offense. It’s that simple,” Bears quarterback Chase Garbers said. “They had a really good scheme, did a lot of exotic things up front.”
WSU made a few notably clutch stops down the stretch.
The Bears threatened late in the third quarter, riding four chunk gains on the ground to reach WSU’s 26-yard line. On a third-and-1 run outside run, Damien Moore was swarmed for a TFL by a host of Cougs. On fourth-and-3, WSU’s defensive line pressured Garbers — as it did so frequently throughout the game — and forced a low throw incomplete.
“They’re relentless and they have been playing amazing,” Armani Marsh said of WSU’s defensive front.
The Bears had an opportunity five minutes later to cut into the deficit and make it a game after another Cougar drive fizzled out.
Again, Cal’s offense was clicking as it rolled deep inside WSU territory. The Bears had first-and-10 from the Cougs’ 10 with about 13 minutes to play — more than enough time to rally from down 15 points.
On first down, WSU’s pass rush induced a misthrow. Cal’s Chris Street gained 7 yards on second down, setting up a third-and-3 from the 4-yard line.
Marsh read the inside carry perfectly, slipping past a blocker and crashing down on Street for a 3-yard loss. On fourth-and-6, Garbers threw a hasty pass low and incomplete.
“I thought we did a good job making him uncomfortable with the pass rush,” Rolovich said of Garbers, who led the Pac-12 in total offense and pass completions per game before Saturday.
In this one, he passed 14 of 30 for 152 yards and was intercepted early in the second quarter near WSU’s 30 by Jaylen Watson, who cut in front of a sit-down route to deny the Bears a golden scoring opportunity — set up moments earlier by a de Laura interception on a blanketed slant route.
Cal progressed past midfield with about five minutes remaining. WSU linebacker Travion Brown broke up a screen attempt at the Cougar 41, saving what surely would have been a big gain on third-and-11.
Before Saturday, the Bears had only been held under seven points in one game over the past 10 seasons. They went 4 of 20 on third and fourth downs versus the Cougs.
“I think a lot of what you saw is some great play on early downs, getting us to third-and-manageable, getting some of the third-down package stuff able to be run,” Rolovich said.
The Bears needed nine yards to move the sticks on an average third down.
WSU neutralized the Bears’ offense early, cracked a bit late, but stood tall when it mattered most. The Cougs doubled their sack total with four — two from Brennan Jackson — and permitted just 3.4 yards per play.
“I think they have played well most of the year, to be honest with you,” Rolovich said of the defenders. “There’s a real commitment, a real unity in that group. I think the preparation is high-level.”