For the third-straight week, the Golden Bears withered against a superior opponent. But whereas last week’s match-up against Washington offered a few moments of optimism before devolving into a blowout, this one was a four-hour bloodletting in which the Cougars dominated wire-to-wire. They now lead the Pac-12 North with an undefeated conference record, while Cal will have to win two tough rivalry games in order to make a bowl game.
As blowouts go, this one wasn’t particularly flashy. Washington State’s offense looked good-not-great, but that was more than enough against a Cal defense that was missing three of its top defensive backs. Cal’s defense looked hesitant at times, giving up gobs of second-effort yards and getting gashed on a number of long plays. Meanwhile, the offense never quite clicked. Though Webb’s line (34/53 for 425 yards, 3 TDs 1 INT) wasn’t far off from Falk’s, he had trouble making crucial throws to sustain drives and convert Cal’s numerous long third downs. Adding to the problem was an unusually quiet day from Cal’s running backs. Moving away somewhat from their Air Raid tendencies, WSU outgained Cal 254–100 on the ground, averaging a stunning 8.2 yards per carry against Cal’s poor 3.3.
There are few moral victories to pull out of this one (Demetris Robertson’s nice day being an exception—he had 141 yards, a TD, and two catches of 50+). It was just an ugly loss that reinforced many of the same things Cal fans have been noticing for the past few weeks. The decision to keep playing Webb late in a blowout—when he appeared to be hurting—will surely inspire some second-guessing in the comments. Nonetheless, the Bears have an opportunity to regroup and recapture some momentum with the Big Game on the horizon. In the meantime, let’s run through some of tonight’s highlights.
The Cougars asserted themselves quickly, forcing the Bears into a three and out on their opening possession and then returning the ensuing punt for a touchdown. Kaleb Fossum ran 75 yards untouched through a wide gap in the coverage, putting the Cougs up 7–0 before their offense even took the field. The next Cal drive fizzled after one first down. On the plus side, the punt coverage was far better the second time around, locking the Cougs inside their own 15.
WSU moved the ball down the field with a combination of passes to the flat and open-field running that would trouble the Bears all evening. But upon reaching the Cal 29, Falk lofted one over a wide-open River Cracraft into the waiting arms of Khari Vanderbilt. The Bears were immediately tagged with a sideline interference penalty and a subsequent false start, negating Vanderbilt’s 20-yard return. The resulting drive faltered short of midfield when Webb threw behind Melquise Stovall on third down.
Cal’s already thin secondary suffered a major blow on the Cougars’ next drive, as safety Jaylinn Hawkins was ejected for targeting because of a crushing hit on Gabe Marks. Gerard Wicks would extend the Cougs’ lead to 14 with a short TD on the ground.
Things seemed ready to unravel when Tre Watson fumbled on third and short at midfield. but the Bears recovered the fumble and Watson redeemed himself with a conversion on the next play.
The Bears would soon find themselves in more trouble, facing a 3rd and 23 after an offensive hands to the face penalty. Slinging it in hopes of making the evening’s first third down conversion, Webb found Demetris Robertson down the right side for a 59-yard completion. He then hit Jordan Veasy on a crossing pattern to narrow the deficit to 14–7.
The momentum wouldn’t last long though, as Falk quickly answered with a 22-yard touchdown pass to River Cracraft. The Bears seemed determined to punch back, riding a handful of long plays into the red zone. Unfortunately the drive stalled when Steven Moore was called for another hands-to-the-face flag. Matt Anderson then missed a 41-yard field goal attempt.
The Bears got the ball back after forcing the Cougs’ first punt of the night. Davis Webb connected with favorite target Chad Hansen on a pair of long passes, first a sliding catch made at his back foot and then a leaping 45-yard grab down the sideline. Looking for Vic Wharton in the end zone, Webb instead found linebacker Nate DeRider who undercut the route for an interception. Ten plays later, Falk would connect with Cracraft for the receiver’s second score. Cal made a brief attempt to move the ball before halftime, but ran out of clock down 28–7.
The Cougars extended their lead with another seemingly easy scoring drive after the break. Cracraft capped it off with his third touchdown of the night, slipping his man in the back of the end zone. The two teams then traded punts, during which time both Cracraft and Melquise Stovall left the game with injuries. On the next drive, Cal was unable to convert 3rd and 1 at midfield, twice giving the ball to Tre Watson without success.
Getting the ball back after forcing a three and out, the Bears finally seemed to find some rhythm. Watson had a few nice carries and Webb punched it in with a 19-yard pass to Bug Rivera. They still trailed 35–14 with two minutes left in the period.
Mike Leach stayed true to his pirate ways, never letting up pressure on the Bears. He sent Falk back out throwing, a decision that paid off with a perfect zip pass to Gabe Marks in the front corner of the end zone. Webb matched him on the following drive, lofting a 57-yard touchdown to Demetris Robertson. The ball was a bit underthrown, but the freshman still got nice separation from his defender and dove in for the score.
Down 42–21, the Bears attempted a squib kick that bounced out of bounds. With good starting field position, the Cougars quickly scored again on a 12-yard rush by James Williams. After a quick Cal three and out, Falk and Marks connected for a touchdown that extended their lead to 56–21. That reception made Marks the Pac-12’s all-time leader in receptions, passing Colorado’s Nelson Spruce.
Webb returned to the game for one final drive, during which he took a couple of hard hits that left him in visible pain. Chad Hansen also limped off, nursing his ankle on the sideline. Webb attempted a pass to Bug Rivera on 4th and goal from the 25 yard line, but an incompletion there sealed the loss.
This game showed the extent to which the Bears have been worn down over the course of the year. The secondary, tired and outmanned, couldn’t stop Luke Falk even while dropping eight or nine men back in coverage. The offense likewise lacked an important element, struggling to establish the run without the help of Vic Enwere.
A losing streak as ugly as this one will surely inspire questions for the coaching staff about failures of recruiting and preparation, but it’s also true that Cal has faced a perfect storm of injuries and a difficult second-half schedule. I didn’t think there were too many head-scratching calls made in this game (although I struggle to understand Sonny’s insistence on playing Davis Webb late in blowouts). Things won’t get any easier against Stanfurd and UCLA, two games that will be very significant in how we judge the success of this season.