No, this was not the prettiest win by the California Golden Bears. There were penalties, punts, turnovers, three-and-outs, and miscues on all sides. If the 2009 Big Game was Cinema Paradiso, 2010 Washington State was Coyote Ugly.
But all our victories are special in their own way. This one was notable because Cal finally notched their first road victory on the season. Brock Mansion also notches his first win in his first start. Cal also wins on the road for the first time in the United States of Justin Bieber. The Bears can go into Memorial needing only one win for bowl eligibility. Did I mention Cal finally gets a road victory?
Pullman remains Bear Territory for at least two more years, and we shall dine in their finest outlet malls and ice cream parlors. For now though, it's time to come home to Telegraph and Fenton's and play spoiler to the dreams of others.
Mansion did ok in his first start. He started out the game 2 for 7 for 6 yards, and didn't look at all prepared to handle the offense. But then he settled down and finished by completing 10 for his last 17 for 164 yards and six of his nine throws in the fourth quarter. He showed pretty good accuracy on the short routes and had the cannon to go deep, although he couldn't really hit anything down the seams or over the middle (this should sound familiar to anyone who's watched our offense the past few years).
Of course, as a guy getting his first significant action, he made the usual rookie mistakes. He didn't read the coverages well and often was throwing into very tight windows. His two interceptions came off of poor reading of the defense. One was when he floated a throw to Michael Calvin and it landed right in the arms of Nolan Washington. He underthrew Shane Vereen down the sidelines and Aire Justin came in perfect position to make the interception, setting up the Cougars last three points of the day.
However, what Mansion did display that's fairly new to our team was an ability to run with the ball. With the Bears pinned deep inside their own territory down 7-0, Brock sold the handoff to Shane Vereen, drew it back when all the Cougars defenders bit, and went scampering for 28 yards. This helped rejuvenate the Cal offense and the Golden Bears would eventually score on that drive to tie things up. Although I wouldn't think Mansion would take off too much next week, it does provide defenses something extra to ponder going into a game. All in all a good start for our Texan, although he did have a particularly ideal opponent.
With Keenan Allen out after suffering a meniscus injury in practice (seriously, how do you get hurt your meniscus in practice?), Cal wide receivers stepped up big after struggling early. Marvin Jones missed a huge throw from Mansion on the first drive, but rebounded later with a 50 yard haul from Mansion to set up a Vereen one yard score to tie the game at seven. Jones would keep another drive alive by one-handing and taking away an interception from defender Deone Bucannon for a 27 yard gain.
But despite Jones's four catches for 101 yards, senior Jeremy Ross made the biggest plays down the stretch. Ross scored on a wide receiver handoff and took it 27 yards to give Cal their first lead in the third quarter. Mansion found Ross in stride for an 18 yard gain on 2nd and nine. And on the biggest play of the game, Mansion found Ross on a simple receiver screen and then powered his way ten yards through multiple Cougar defenders. With his teammates helping to push him forward and the Cougar defenders going for the strip rather than the tackle, Ross got an incredible 20 yard gain on 3rd and 20 to pick up the first down.
Don't be deceived by the impressive run stats; the Cal offensive line continues to look like a mess. Despite often stacking an unbalanced line (six offensive linemen instead of the typical five) and pulling in two tight ends for maximum protection for passing plays and more blockers for running plays, there were still many occasions where an inspired Cougar front seven handled the Golden Bears at the line of scrimmage. Mansion got flattened at least twice with barely a moment of warning or was pressured out of the pocket. Some of that is on Mansion for not reading the blitzes, but if he can't read coverages he probably won't read blitzes well either--line's gotta pick it up.
Shane Vereen got suplexed behind the line of scrimmage on another occasion and was stuffed on several more despite all the extra blockers, who just kept on whiffing and missing. Vereen managed 112 yards on 25 carries, and on most of those occasions it was just Shane generating the yards on his own. Isi Sofele provided a solid 48 yards on 7 carries. Nevertheless, Wazzu completely sold out to stop the run, but the Golden Bears still rushed for 211 yards on 42 carries for a strong 5 yards per carry. I'd still have to attribute those numbers more to the skill of our tailbacks and the terribleness of the Cougar run defense that determined these numbers more than the execution of our offensive line.
I've kind of given up on this unit playing consistent football, and just hope they don't get our quarterback and running backs injured the next two weeks with all the premature hits they're likely to absorb. They are what they are, right Coach Marshall?
However, the offensive line wasn't the worst unit on the field. This game it was the special teams, which was downright atrocious. Giorgio Tavecchio booted a 37 yard field goal wide right and Brian Schwenke got manhandled on a blocked extra point by Anthony Laurenzi that kept it a seven point game rather than increasing it to eight. Wazzu's Justin returned a punt 33 yards to set up one of two long boots by Andrew Furney, this one from 51 yards. Sofele bobbled a kickoff and it bounced out of bounds at the 5 yard line, forcing Cal to drive 95 yards to score. Kickoff returns were especially bad. Jarrett Sparks committed an illegal block in the back infraction on one return. Chris Conte nearly muffed a kick return that would've given the Cougars great field position, and J.P. Hurrell committed an unnecessary roughness penalty on the same play that brought the ire of Jeff Tedford. Cal's average field position was their own 23. Only Bryan Anger played particularly well, averaging 47.6 yards per punt and pinning the Cougars inside their own 20 three times.
The problems that we thought had been coached out of the Golden Bears special teams all resurfaced on Saturday. Systemic failures like these will eat us alive against teams not named Washington State.
The Cal defense went back from famine to feast mode, shutting down Jeff Tuel after his only scoring drive in the first half. On that drive, the Cougars pretty much ran the ball, as Tuel took advantage of overpursuit by the Bears and ran for an impressive 36 yards on three carries, with Logwone Mitz tacking on 17 more along with the only Washington State touchdown. Tuel would rush several more times in the game, but after getting injured on one snap it didn't look like Paul Wulff was willing to risk his stud quarterback getting banged up too much and kept him isolated in the pocket.
There were some new wrinkles in this defensive set. Trevor Guyton took over at nose tackle for Derrick Hill as Cal went to a three defensive end look (something Bob Gregory employed last season when Hill got injured), and Guyton made things happen, ratcheting up 7 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Perhaps it was just the lack of good players on the Cougar offensive line, but kudos to Guyton to coming back to his home state (he grew up in Woodinville in the Seattle area) and making an impact. Cameron Jordan was his usual dominant self, picking up 12 tackles (8 solo), 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Ho-hum. Michael Mohamed played with a broken wrist, but still managed to make a big open-field tackle on Tuel in the fourth quarter to force another three-and-out. Cal sacked Tuel six times, with Mychal Kendricks and Sean Cattouse joining Guyton and Jordan with the pressure.
Tuel had a great game against Cal last season, but could do very little down the stretch, finishing nine of 25 and throwing eight straight incompletions to stall Washington State drives in the fourth quarter. Sporting nickel and dime packages for the majority of the game, the Bears tuned into the passing game and wouldn't let Tuel's receivers get any breathing room. Darian Hagan had a crucial pass breakup in the end zone against the promising frosh Marques Wilson and broke up another pass, and Josh Hill and Cattouse added pass breakups of their own, Cattouse's coming on the last offensive play by the Cougars. The play of the defensive backs was important in making the field very difficult for Tuel to survey and make precise throws, and his throws required him to be precise and Cougar receivers to make very tough grabs.
The Cougars also hurt themselves with inopportune penalties. A chop-block by inexperienced freshman John Fullington negated a Logwone Mitz gain of 16 yards to the Cal 20 and instead put Washington State in 1st and 25 at midfield; they'd eventually punt the ball away. Washington State false started on the next drive on 3rd and 5 at the Cal 20; this allowed the Bears to dig in on pass defense and prevent the drive from going any further, and Wazzu settled for another Furney field goal to cut the lead to 14-13. Cal committed five penalties themselves to kill a few drives
(Let me state that when I say the Washington St. Cougars are the worst team in the conference, I only mean that to be factual rather than dismissive. The Cougars are much improved from their horrid 2008 and 2009 incarnations, putting up big fights against Arizona, the Furd, UCLA and Oregon. But the injury bug has hurt this team, and they were clearly running on fumes in the second half when Cal had to hand them gifts for the Cougars to put up points. Wazzu is probably a year away from being competitive enough to challenge for wins on a game-to-game basis, and I think they're very close to outright challenging Pac-10 opponents for victories rather than upset bids.)
Despite all their mistakes and non-production, the Cougars came very close to taking one on Saturday afternoon in Pullman. But Cal took it right back. The question is can the Bears build on this performance and make things happen in their final three game homestand to close out the current Memorial Stadium? We'll get our answer over three tough weeks in Strawberry Canyon.