BERKELEY, Calif. -- The whispers that Washington State could become part of the College Football Playoff discussion are getting louder each week.
The Cougars (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) are up to No. 8 in the rankings following a convincing 33-10 road win over Oregon. While Washington State continues to operate an efficient passing game under coach Mike Leach, it now has something that could push the Cougars to the elite level -- a defense.
The Cougars are off to their best start since 2001 after winning their first road game of the season in Eugene, Ore.
"It's a starting point," Leach said. "We play on the road again next week and we're going to have to improve."
While the true tests for Washington State come later in the season, when it faces Stanford and Washington, the Cougars cannot afford to lose to a team like California on Friday night in Berkeley, Calif.
The Bears started off the season with high hopes, winning their first three games and being tied with USC in the fourth quarter in their fourth game.
But it has all fallen apart for Cal (3-3, 0-3) since then, and the 38-7 loss to Washington on Saturday, in which the Cal offense failed to score a point, was the low point.
"Obviously a really disappointing performance," Cal first-year coach Justin Wilcox said. "We didn't do anything on offense to give us a chance. We're going to have to re-evaluate some things."
Little has gone right for the Bears lately. They rank 103rd of 129 FBS teams in total offense and 102nd in total defense.
Bouncing back from the humbling defeat in Seattle will not be easy.
"I think we're going to find out more about our team in the next 48 hours than at any other point since I've been here," Wilcox said. "It's hard right now. We're sitting at 3-3, we've lost three in a row, we haven't played well enough, especially (Saturday). We've got to be better than that."
Being without injured receivers Kanawai Noa (unspecified injury) and Demetris Robinson (out for the season with a lower-body injury) did not help the Bears against Washington.
Cal quarterback Ross Bowers has struggled lately and passed for just 80 yards against the Huskies.
Having time to throw will help. Bowers was sacked seven times against Washington and has been sacked 17 times over the past three games.
"It is definitely a problem," Cal offensive lineman Patrick Mekari said.
It is certainly a problem against a Washington State defense that has 21 sacks, which is tied for fourth in the country.
Despite a reputation for being poor on defense over the years, the Cougars rank 11th nationally in total defense this week.
They showed that against Oregon, which came into the game as the highest scoring team in the country and left with just 10 points.
Granted, it was a wounded Oregon offense, with several Ducks starters out and true freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister making his first start in place of injured Justin Herbert. But it was an impressive effort nonetheless as Washington State beat Oregon for the third time in a row.
"We gave up some explosives, which I'm sure we'd like to do over again, but we did a pretty good job of keeping the lid on them," Leach said.
The Cougars' defense has remained consistent despite a series of injuries to defenders, especially in the linebacking corps. A broken foot ended the season of middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer, and Isaac Dotson left the Oregon game with an unspecified injury. However, redshirt freshman linebacker Jahad Woods has been impressive.
Washington State's calling card remains its passing attack. The Cougars rank third nationally in passing, and quarterback Luke Falk leads the nation in passing touchdowns with 19 against just two interceptions.
He has thrown 108 career touchdown passes, which ranks second all-time in the Pac-12 and is just eight shy of the conference record held by former USC star Matt Barkley.
Falk threw five touchdown passes in the Cougars' 56-21 victory over Cal in Pullman, Wash., last year, and the fact that the Bears rank 108th nationally in passing yards allowed this season does not bode well for Cal in Friday's meeting.
Another such performance might make Falk a more serious Heisman Trophy candidate.
The Cougars have already earned bowl eligibility but that has passed with little notice.
"I mean that's not our goal," Falk told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "Our goals, we've still got those ahead of us right now."