Unfortunately, Cal is returning from the ether, and the descent hasn't been pretty with back-to-back home losses in winnable games. There may be no reason to panic, as we lost close contests to an undefeated Air Force squad and a 16th-ranked WSU team considered to be the conference favorite. But for the second consecutive weekend, the Cal defense collapsed in the second half and the offense made just enough mistakes to lose. The latest result may have been predictable, given that the Cougars have a star senior quarterback in Jason Gesser and a deep, talented receiving corps that created nightmare matchups for a Cal secondary depleted by the ineligibility of six cornerbacks (including projected starters Atari Callen and Ray Carmel). Nevertheless, any loss in which you surrender a 15-point lead and yield 48 points and 578 total yards has to be considered ugly.
Once upon a time, and by the time the game ended it certainly did seem like a very long time ago, the Bears had a double-digit lead. Cal scored a touchdown on the opening possession when WR Ward made a sweet running catch for a 25-yard TD reception in the end zone. A 13-yard pass from QB Boller to WR Makonnen on third and 9 and RB Igber's 38-yard run on a draw play that caught WSU in a blitz keyed that drive. On the first series in the second quarter, Cal scored again when Igber ran the ball in from 3 yards out. Serendipity smiled upon the Bears on that drive when Boller, as he was being tackled, blindly chucked up a pass on which Igber alertly adjusted to the underthrown ball and caught it for a 21-yard gain to the WSU 15.
Things were definitely going our way early, though in retrospect, it's almost unfathomable that Cal held the Cougars scoreless for the first 27+ minutes of the first half. On its first play from scrimmage, WSU's receiver-to-receiver trick play (similar to our first play vs. Baylor) gained only 43 yards instead of 78 and a TD because the pass was underthrown and WR Darling, who was 15-20 yards behind the nearest blue shirt, stepped out of bounds after catching the ball. (The Cougars didn't score on that drive.) WSU fumbled away its next possession; the first Cal defender tried to pick up the loose ball and run with it but whiffed, though DE Gustaveson still recovered. WSU placekicker Dunning missed a 45-yard field goal attempt on the third Cougar drive; he later proved that miss was a fluke with converted 42- and 48-yarders. The next two Cougar possessions ended in punts, with a total net gain of 1 yard, and Cal held a 14-0 lead with just over five minutes left in H1.
As in the Air Force game, the defense's second-half collapse was portended late in Q2 when it began to crumble. Against WSU, a couple of huge Cal mistakes gave the Cougars confidence and momentum. The first error occurred on WSU's third-and-10 play from its own 19 when Gesser hit RB Smith with a pass behind or near the line of scrimmage; a Bear defender had a great shot at him but missed, and Smith squirted 12 yards for a first down. Moments later, Gesser threw an incomplete pass on third and 9 but Cal was offside; given a reprieve, Gesser completed a 7-yard pass to WR Lunde for a first down. On the very next play, Gesser lofted a bomb to WR Bush that would have been a TD had it not been underthrown; as it was, WSU gained 45 yards to the Cal 11. An 11-yard TD pass to WR Lunde put the Cougars on the board with just under three minutes remaining in the half. Lorenzo Alexander, who blocked a field goal against New Mexico State, struck again and blocked the extra point attempt.
Cal seemingly regained the upper hand on its next possession. The Bears covered 80 yards in just over two minutes, with a 29-yard pass to Makonnen and a 15-yard WSU personal foul accounting for the primary chunks until Swoboda made a great catch for a 21-yard TD reception. Cal's lead stood at 15, the largest of the afternoon.
Unfortunately, Cal scored too fast and left WSU with 33 seconds on the clock. That was too many. RB Green rushed for 18, Cal was nailed for pass interference for 15, and Gesser completed a pass to Bush for 14, and in just three snaps, WSU was in field goal range. Dunning booted a 42-yarder with 0:02 remaining in Q2 and the halftime score was 21-9.
Bolstered by its success late in the second quarter, WSU's offense continued its onslaught in earnest in Q3. Aided by another Cal pass interference penalty, the Cougars covered 68 yards in 10 plays after the kickoff with the big plays being a 14-yard reverse/run by Darling and a 12-yard Gesser-to-Darling pass on fourth and 6 from the Cal 39. RB Tippins did the honors with a 6-yard TD run, and the Cal lead shrunk to 21-16.
Trying to answer, the Bears drove almost to midfield before Makonnen's dropped pass on third and 7 forced us to punt. Fredrickson's woeful 24-yard kick rolled out of bounds at the WSU 28. Gesser then renewed his attack on our beleaguered secondary with an 18-yard completion to Darling (with 15 yards tacked on for a Cal roughing-the-passer penalty) and a 39-yard pass to WR Riley. On first down from the Cal 10, Gesser threw a fade to Bush in the end zone, and his TD catch was a piece of cake since the Cal DB fell down at his feet. Lunde caught the two-point conversion pass, and the Cougars forged ahead, 24-21.
The Bears managed one first down on a gutsy 4-yard scramble by Boller on third and 4; Kyle took a shot as he dove for the marker. But the drive stalled at the Cal 34, and then our special teams had another meltdown. Fredrickson had no chance to get the punt off and the kick was blocked. There was a mad scramble for the ball, and WSU's Coleman ultimately recovered and ran it in 9 yards for a TD. In about twelve game minutes, the Cougars went from 15 points down to 10 points ahead at 31-21.
Instead of throwing in the towel, Cal responded strongly. Boller found McArthur for 27- and 37-yard completions on consecutive plays all the way to the WSU 10. On third and goal from the 3, Tedford reached into his bag of tricks. The Bears ran a misdirection play, with Boller - just as he was clobbered - throwing the ball across the grain to... 6'6", 295-pound offensive lineman Mark Wilson. Wilson, who played tight end in high school, made a nifty catch and rumbled into the end zone. (The play was initially ruled a pass but was later changed to a lateral.) Cal thus snapped the 25-point WSU scoring run and closed the gap to three.
Momentum appeared to have shifted to the Bears, but the visit was amazingly brief. Following the kickoff, the Cougars covered 75 yards in only two plays: 1) a 44-yard Gesser-to-Bush bomb, on which the WSU receiver made a jaw-dropping, stupendous, one-handed diving catch; and 2) a 31-yard TD pass to Riley over the middle that looked way too easy. WSU thus restored its ten-point advantage and capped a 16-minute blitz from 2:53 in Q2 to 1:53 in Q3 during which the Cougars scored a mind-blowing 38 points.
By then, it was painfully obvious that Cal would have to score on every possession if it were going to have a chance to win because the defense had no answers for WSU. Surely, the offense felt the pressure, particularly Boller. On the first play of the fourth quarter, with Cal facing a third and 7, Boller heaved the ball up for grabs and DB Coleman made an easy interception. That looked like WSU's knockout punch when Gesser fired back-to-back first-down passes to Bush and Darling, followed by a 10-yard defensive holding penalty. But the Cougar machine finally stalled at the Cal 27 when the defense stuffed runs on both third-and-one and fourth-and-inches plays. That series was the first time that WSU didn't score a TD on a second-half possession, thereby breaking an ugly string in which the Cal defense allowed TDs on six consecutive H2 possessions going back to the Air Force game (excluding the punt-block TD, which was a special-teams play).
The fired-up Bears took over, and the ghosts of the Air Force game returned as Ward dropped a pass about 15 yards downfield. But on third and 4, Boller hit Makonnen on a catch-and-run that netted 39 yards to the WSU 28. The Cougar defender guarding Swoboda was then flagged for a 15-yard penalty and Makonnen soon scored from 13 yards out on a beautifully executed receiver screen. Jensen's extra point closed the gap to 38-35.
On the ensuing kickoff, the WSU return man got bottled up just outside the 10 and then, somehow, a Cal cover man burst from the scrum with the ball. In the excitement/celebration, I didn't see exactly what happened nor did I look at the replay screen - I don't recall seeing the ball hit the ground. In any case, Cal took over at the WSU 9. Strangely, we ran three plays (an Igber run, a short pass to Igber, and a third-and-goal Boller run that netted nothing) without taking a single shot at the end zone. Jensen nailed a 20-yard field goal to knot the score at 38. What a barnburner, folks!
The problem was, WSU didn't fumble the ensuing kickoff, which meant that the Cougars' offense would take the field. Damn. Gesser again started rifling passes right and left over our befuddled secondary, including a 41-yard strike to Riley to the Cal 6. WSU finished the drive on a 6-yard Gesser-to-Darling touchdown pass, and Cal trailed 45-38 with 4 1/2 minutes left.
Cal made one first down on a 13-yard pass over the middle to Makonnen, who had a career day with 136 receiving yards. But then came the Bears' most critical gaffe of the day; Boller, under pressure, threw off his back foot and lofted a horrible pass downfield that was easily intercepted by DB David. If Boller had tried to force the pass on third down, it would have been understandable, but on first down, it was a very bad decision that effectively ended the game (at least the way WSU was trampling over our defense). Kyle knew it, too, as he pounded the ground in frustration.
With just under four minutes remaining, WSU eschewed the normal run-out-the-clock strategy and instead went for the throat. The way the Cougar offense was clicking, who could blame them? Gesser passed on every down, including a 23-yarder to WR Riley, and the Cougars reached the Cal 31 before stalling. WSU placekicker Dunning snuffed out the Bears' remaining hope with a 48-yard field goal, closing out the scoring at 48-38. Cal managed one inconsequential first down before turning the ball over on downs with three incompletions and a sack.
I had mixed feelings about the outcome - well, not the fact that we lost, of course, which blew chunks. On the one hand, the Bears gave the Pac-10 favorite Cougars a tough, competitive game before succumbing. On the other hand, Cal looked suspiciously like the 2001 squad in many respects (defenseless in H2, allowing negative trends to snowball, committing key turnovers, blowing a double-digit lead as in the UW game [which, coincidentally, was almost exactly one year earlier [9/29/01]). Still, we're 3-2, a record that almost any Bear fan would have gladly taken during the preseason.
The way he played, it was ridiculous to ponder that Gesser almost missed the game with a busted rib. Coach Price said it would be a game-time decision as to whether Gesser would start, and with the backup also nicked up, in theory the Cougars could have started their #3 QB. Good night, if Gesser goes 28 of 44 for 431 yards with 4 TDs and 0 INTs when he's hurt, he must be better than Joe Montana when healthy. Instead of wearing down during the game, Gesser got better: he started 8-of-16 for 66 yards and finished 20-of-28 for 365 yards with all of his TDs. He hit his receivers on both short and long throws with uncanny timing and accuracy. He also shook off hard hits from the Cal defense on the few occasions that he was pressured. Plus, you have to give a lot of credit to the WSU receivers, who consistently got open and hauled in seemingly every catchable ball thrown their way. Thankfully, few teams have a trio of WRs like Riley (7 catches, 139 yards, 1 TD), basketball forward Bush (5 catches, 125 yards, 1 TD), and Florida State transfer Darling (6 catches, 109 yards, 1 TD).
Boller's stats (29-47, 371 yards, 3 TDs) were generally excellent, and they were aided by the fact that the receivers didn't drop many passes. But his two mistakes were killers, and unlike the Air Force game, in which he had several potential interceptions dropped by the defenders, he had no such luck this time. Both undoubtedly resulted from Boller trying to do too much. Though you've got to love the kid for his heart and desire, he must learn to play more prudently. Poor Boller never seems to get a break; he even had a TD pass taken away when the official scorer (or whatever he's called in football) changed the Wilson play to a lateral.
Not that it's their fault, but I'm really, really starting to hate Washington State the way I hate Washington. They almost always beat us, which lately doesn't make them unique by any means. However, the Cougars also usually make us look bad. Consider WSU's streak in winning 9 of the last 11 games in the series:
2002 (L, 48-38): WSU 578 tot yds, Gesser 431 passing yds, WSU 25 straight pts, Cal blew 15-pt lead
2001 (L, 51-20): WSU 605 tot yds, Gesser 432 passing yds, WSU 31 straight pts, Cal 4 turnovers
2000 (L, 21-17): WSU broke 6-game Pac-10 losing streak since beating (who else?) us in 1999
1999 (L, 31-7): WSU broke 10-game Pac-10 losing streak after Rose Bowl season
1998 (W, 24-14): Cal offense shut out but had 3 defensive TDs/6 takeaways; Cal FG "drive" = -13 yds
1997 (L, 63-37): WSU 619 tot yds, WSU 56 straight pts, WSU 2nd-highest pts of any Cal opponent ever
1996 (L, 21-18): Pat Barnes committed gaffe for the ages, a fumbled snap from the WSU 1 with 1 min left
1995 (W, 27-11): Cal actually looked good in beating WSU!
1994 (L, 26-23): Cal blew 18-pt lead due to 6 turnovers, Ryan Longwell wide 57-yd FG attempt at gun
1993 (L, 34-7): WSU 544-135 tot yd advantage, WSU 27 straight pts, Cal ranked #20 but no Dave Barr
1990 (L, 41-31): Cal's only two Pac-10 road losses were in the state of WA
Most diehard Bear fans know that we haven't beaten WSU in Pullman since Jimmy Carter was president. I went to the road debacles in 1996 and 1999, and I don't think I'll ever recover from the Barnes disaster, which quickly became legendary in my mind. Thank God we skipped the Cougars in 1991 and 1992! Why can't we skip them more often? Of course, the way we've played in recent years, it would have been preferable to skip the entire Pac-10 except for USC and UCLA. Since 1998, Cal is 5-3 against the LA schools and a horrific 3-22 against everyone else in the conference, including an ongoing 18-game losing streak against non-LA squads. Looking at those numbers, which are incredible yet unsurprising to the relatively few of us who closely follow Cal football, it's no mystery why interest in Cal football hit rock bottom before the Michigan State upset.
That's enough moaning and groaning about the past. Where do we go from here? Past Cal teams have folded, as noted by senior safety Asomugha: "Those first three games we were on a pistol. But now we're 0-2 in the last two games and that hurts us. We have to be able to bounce back from it, which we haven't been able to in the past." The unkind schedule reads @ #12 Washington, @ #18 USC, UCLA, and @ Oregon State, so we'll soon see whether the 3-0 start was just a mirage or whether the Bears have simply hit a couple of speed bumps during their improbable run. As the old cliché goes, Rome wasn't built in a day, and may take Tedford time to turn around the program for good. His current order of business is banishing the Washington curse; we haven't beaten the Huskies since the year America celebrated its bicentennial and the last three losses, in which we squandered double-digit leads, have been particularly brutal. Still, we've given the Huskies scares recently, and hopefully we can close the deal next Saturday.
Go Bears! Beat the Huskies!
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