Real harm of fake punt? Letting go of the mo

FAKE PUNT. I'VE NEVER been much of a fan. Not even in a Sunday afternoon beer league. In my multiple decades of Cougar watching, only two linger in the recesses as good ideas: Bernard Jackson against Oregon in 1971 and Rick Chase at Eugene in 1984. Audacious and executed to perfection, each went for a TD that helped secure victory. Washington State's fake punt at Cal on Saturday had nothing in common with those. A fake punt when you're ahead is like ordering extra water at a diner in Juarez.

It doesn't compute, even if you do get away with it.

Fake punt. It's like listening to Jeff Gordon torture the national anthem in Chicago and then begging for an encore in Houston.

The Cougs, remember, had it fourth-and-two late in the game, up 10, moving in for the kill. The defense was fired up. The offense was shattering records. The Cal crowd was doing a great job of standing around, liked they'd finally reached the end of a long, emotionally draining, lead-blowing telethon.

And then, the fake punt. The way the second half was progressing, the game may have been coming just a bit too easy for the Cougars. They'd rattled off 28 unanswered points.

Why not fake a punt?

The staff up in the box had no doubt seen a vulnerability in the Cal defense, but as I'm watching it all unfold I'm wondering what improbable blend of impulses have to intersect in the cerebral cortex to make a fake punt seem like a good idea?

If you want to shake up the neighborhood why not just comb the streets of Berkeley shouting "Earthquake! Earthquake!"

Momentum, the great arbiter of just about any skirmish, is treasure. You just don't hand it over. Fake a punt, run a yard or two short of the first down sticks and turn it over to your defense? The risk-reward seems way off balance.

Make it and the Cougs keep the ball, sure, but with nearly seven minutes left there was still plenty of time for disaster to make its weekly appearance.

Even if you make it, are you telling your defense you don't want to put the game in their hands? The Cougar stop unit had managed to keep the 23rd-ranked team in the nation off the scoreboard for nearly 25 minutes.

Fail and it's a turnover. And a turnover, as we all know, is a crack in the pipeline. The big mo changes course. You just know something's gotta blow. Delighted by this gift of field position, the Bears broke out in celebration. That had to be a first for a team that trailed 38-28 with barely six minutes left.

Go back to fourth and two, to Fake Punt. Washington State's Scott Davis, a sometimes brilliant linebacker whose last big run came against Moses Lake, hasn't carried anything but defensive responsibility for four years. Yet there he is, on my tape of the game, a former high school running back shifting from personal protector on the punt unit to quarterback, under center.

I remember it live, when two words came blurting out.

Oh. Oh.

Now if you need two feet, Scott will get you two feet. If you need two yards, Scott will get you two feet. That's an update of an old Leroy Hoard line but that's what was gained and lost here. When Davis stepped up behind center, the Cal defense froze, as if to say, "You're kiddin', right?"

At first, Fake Punt looked like the stroke of genius. A hole about the size of Lacrosse-Washtucna loomed dead ahead. The Cougar center was uncovered. It looked like Davis could stumble and lunge his way from the Cal 38 to the nearest Bay Area Rapid Transit boarding station.

Just when it became obvious that he and the Cougars were in earnest, a Cal DB alertly jumped into the chasm, head up on the center. To the big guys pinching down and clogging the running lane, all those bear crawls that every lineman hates so much finally made sense. Suddenly, an open lane was as jammed as a floating bridge at 5:30.

The play was stuffed.

Forty-five seconds later Cal's consensus All-Name quarterback Joe Ayoob (pronounced Ayoob) flipped a 57-yard TD pass and the Cougs were back on the treadmill to nowhere.

Up in the booth bedlam reigned. You can't award $1,000 to each university's general scholarship fund in the name of Fake Punt. Game officials had to futz up a name from the winning side.

It was easier picking WSU's star of the night. A great game from wideout Jason Hill was all but wasted. Three TDs, 240 yards, yikes. Forget Los Angeles and USC Saturday. Send him to Seattle. The Seahawks could use a guy like that right now.

But enough dwelling on the positive. Epic, mood-swinging moments like Fake Punt are usually supported by less discernible boo-boos. No different here. WSU's point-after kick following its last TD was blocked. The Cougar up man on the right side brush-blocked Cal's outside rusher. Unfortunately there was a lot more brush than block. Cal's Damien Hughes ran through it, got a hand on the kick and the Cougs lost a chance to push the lead to 11.

It didn't seem like much at the time but a faint, nagging warning took root right there.

In the midst of a crimson celebration came the first sobering oh-oh.

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