Saturday's game in Pullman against Cal suddenly looks a lot tougher for the Cougars after the Bears finally came to life and put a serious hurting on UCLA last week. Just a week ago Cal looked like a team that could easily come up to Pullman and lay down, giving the Cougars their first conference win under Mike Leach, but it doesn't look like the Bears are ready to pack it in any time soon and the Cougar offense will have to take it up a notch and limit their mistakes if they hope to make it a game.
The Cougars should receive a bit of a boost by getting a night game in Martin Stadium and the noise of the raucous Pullman crowd should give their defense some help against a still suspect Cal offense. If the Cougars defense can play the kind of game they played against Oregon State last weekend, it will be an interesting affair, but if their offense still doesn't show up it won't matter, especially if Connor Halliday and/or Jeff Tuel can't protect the ball. The Bear defense picked off Matt Barkley and Brett Hundley a combined total of 6 times, so the generosity of the Cougar quarterback duo has to have the Cal defense licking their chops.
It looks like Halliday is going to get the start on Saturday and it is imperative for the Cougars that the trigger happy sophomore just take what the Cal defense gives him early on and not reach for plays. Leach has mentioned the mental frailty of this Washington State team, so they cannot afford any early set backs against a solid team that should be very fired up. Having to resort to pulling Halliday for Tuel again wouldn't be good for the psyche of a team that is clearly struggling to maintain their composure so early in the year and is looking to build for the future with Halliday under center.
It's not all on Halliday though, his receivers, especially the enigmatic Marquess Wilson, can't keep dropping passes the way they have. The Cougars get a limited amount of chances for big plays and they can't keep letting them literally slip through their fingers. The perpetual dropped passes haven't just killed drives and halted momentum, they have also put Halliday in tough positions that force him to have to try and make dangerous throws for first downs.
On the other side of the ball, the Cougar defense needs to keep playing the way they did last week, and limit big plays while also getting after Cal quarterback Zach Maynard. Maynard put together what might be the best game of his career last week, but he has been anything but dynamic throughout his career. Much like they made Sean Mannion last week, the Cougars need to make Maynard revert to his old ways of throwing interceptions and missing open receivers if they hope to win.
While these match-ups and individual performances will assuredly be determining factors in the game, nothing might be more important than how the Cougars come out in the first quarter. A slow start could easily allow the Bears to keep their confidence up and keep on rolling, but a quick start by the Cougars could just as easily send the Bears back into the malaise that got them in the 1-4 hole they are trying to crawl out of.