Cougs no longer singing the California Blues

THESE ARE THE games that bowl-caliber teams win. It was not always aesthetically pleasing to watch Washington State's 44-22 win Saturday at California as Golden Bears wide receiver Chris Harper consistently beat Cougar defenders on deep balls during the first half. But WSU always seemed to respond to adversity en route to improving to 2-0 in conference road games.

It might as well have been a flashback to the Mike Price era for the Cougars (4-2 overall, 2-1 Pac-12). Price's 1997 (63-37) and 2002 (48-38) teams needed big offensive performances from Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser, respectively, to fend off the Golden Bears during those years. On Saturday, junior Connor Halliday aptly filled that role, completing 41 of 67 passes for 521 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. It was a school record for attempts during a game, and helped WSU to its largest margin of victory in a conference game since defeating UCLA by 22 points in 2006.

The Cougars also snapped an eight-game losing streak against California.

"It's nice to snap that streak," offensive lineman Joe Dahl said during a postgame radio interview. "Any road win in the Pac-12 is good."

The hobbled Halliday – he had a noticeable limp a week after after leaving the game against Stanford – was nearly flawless during the third quarter after a safety and interception helped the Golden Bears (1-4, 0-2) reduce their deficit to 21-15 at halftime.

WSU dominated the third quarter as Halliday converted 4 of 5 third-down plays during the third quarter. That helped the Cougars gain a double-digit lead – a factor that cannot be understated when both coaches utilize the Air Raid offense – as sophomore running back Teondray Caldwell scored on a 10-yard run and junior wide receiver Vince Mayle, who had 113 yards on four receptions, followed with a 72-yard touchdown reception. That gave WSU a 35-15 lead with 4:24 remaining in the period.

Mayle's reception helped top Marcus Mason's 68-yard touchdown on a second-quarter screen pass from Halliday as the team's longest of the game.

That helped Halliday overcome some missed opportunities during the first half. The most notable came when the Cougars took over near midfield during the first quarter with a 14-0 lead. WSU went three-and-out during that possession.

"Two huge drives to get us up 14-0," Halliday said. "That's something we need to sustain for the rest of the first half to get up 21-0 or 28-0."

After all, no lead ever seemed safe during a game where both teams combined for 1,155 yards of total offense.

Enter the defense.

While the Cougars could not contain Harper, who racked up 216 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions, they created enough stops and dominated the turnover battle to shift the game's momentum.

"Our guys didn't flinch," said Leach, whose team was outgained 585-570. "They stayed in there and kept playing."

IT STARTED ON the game's first drive when freshman Jared Goff, who completed 32 of 58 passes for 489 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, drove the Golden Bears down to WSU's 5-yard line. But that series ended when junior Toni Pole recovered a fumble by running back Daniel Lasco.

Pole then recovered a Brendan Bigelow fumble at the WSU 1 early in the second quarter. Even with those turnovers, Pole was not the biggest contributor on the Cougars' defensive line. Senior nose tackle Ioane Gauta had two sacks and deflected a pair of passes, including a third-quarter tip on fourth-and-1 at WSU's 33 that resulted in an incompletion.

Gauta also helped make the Golden Bears' offense one-dimensional as they rushed for just 79 yards on 29 carries. While Goff took advantage of many of those opportunities, the Cougars usually were able to contain them when it was important. California converted 7 of 19 third-down opportunities and was unsuccessful on all three fourth-down tries. Most significantly, the Cougars won the turnover battle 5-1 after junior Theron West forced a fumble on Bigelow's kickoff return midway through the fourth quarter.

"It was a great team win," Leach said. "We had contributions from offense, defense and special teams. The effort was great and I thought we improved this week."

THAT LEADS TO the bigger picture. In five of WSU's last seven bowl seasons – the teams did not play in 1992 or 2003 – it has defeated the Golden Bears. Near-misses in 2006-07 can partially be attributed to losses against California.

WSU also has won its most conference road games since it went 3-2 in '06. Of course, the Cougars negated that by winning just one conference home game, against Oregon, that season and their 6-6 record left them outside of the postseason.

"4-2 is good, but we're not satisfied," Mason said.

After all, it won't be enough to advance to a bowl for the first time in a decade if WSU cannot win at Martin Stadium. That begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against Oregon State. Halliday, who threw for his previous career-high 494 yards during a 37-27 win versus Arizona State during Dads' Weekend in 2011, looks forward to the opportunity.

"Can't wait," he said. "I've had two pretty big games on my first two Dads' Weekends. I hope to make it a third."

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