On Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the Cal football team’s clash against the Cougars lived up to its billing as a battle of two Pac-12 bottom dwellers.
In a game littered with turnovers and penalties, Washington State (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) topped the Bears (1-4, 0-2 Pac-12), 44-22, despite quarterback Jared Goff’s school record 504 passing yards and wide receiver Chris Harper’s 216 receiving yards. Against an underperforming secondary, Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday matched Goff’s big day, lighting up the Bears to the tune of 521 yards and three touchdowns.
“Obviously, it wasn’t a good performance by us,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. “We turned the ball over five times, fumbled inside their five-yard line twice. You’re not going to win if you do that — it doesn’t matter who you play. That’s not winning football.”
In the end, it was Cal’s two critical red zone mistakes in the first quarter that doomed Sonny Dykes’ first realistic shot at his first Pac-12 win. While the Bears’ turnover issues against Oregon were written off as a casualty of the brutal rainstorm, Cal had no one to blame but itself for its five costly turnovers under the hot California sun on Saturday.
On Cal’s first drive of the game, Goff marched the squad straight down the field, all the way to the Cougars’ five-yard line. But in a scene all too familiar to Cal fans, running back Daniel Lasco botched a handoff exchange from Goff, leading to a Cougar recovery.
Washington State didn’t take long to strike off of the turnover. Completing a 14-point swing in favor of the visiting team, quarterback Connor Halliday connected with Vince Mayle for a 35-yard touchdown pass.
Trailing 7-0, Cal responded with a three and out on its possession. Against a Cal defense on short rest, WSU drove down the field and extended its lead to 14-0. For the third consecutive game, Cal trailed by at least two scores before its offense found the end zone.
On the last play of the first quarter, the Bears appeared to vault themselves back in the game when Goff found wide receiver Richard Rodgers for a 38-yard passing play to the one-yard line. But when the second quarter arrived, the Bears once again found themselves on the wrong end of the fumble. Running back Brendan Bigelow, on third and goal from the one, fumbled away another scoring opportunity right into the hands of Washington State’s Kalafitoni Pole.
“Poor kid just doesn’t have a lot of confidence right now,” Dykes said. “We got to figure out a way to get him some. It’s tough right now to play him, honestly, so we’ll see what happens.”
After Bigelow’s blunder, Cal’s defense responded and awoke the dormant crowd with a stop in the end zone for the safety. With Cougar running back Teondray Caldwell taking a handoff to his right, a pack of Bears, led by DeAndre Coleman, converged on the hapless Cougar to put Cal on the board.
After a Vincent D’Amato field goal cut Washington State’s lead to 14-5, Cal struck gold. On 2nd and 11 from the 11-yard line, wide receiver Chris Harper lined up in the slot with Goff in the shotgun formation. Harper juked his way to the outside, where Goff found him wide open. Harper cut past a Washington State defensive back and scooted into the end zone. The 89-yard hookup between Goff and Harper was the second-longest pass play in school history.
“It was the same play I overthrew him on earlier in the game,” Goff said. “I just didn’t want to let that happen again. He ran a great route, and it was wide open. He just made a play after he caught it.”
Down by just two, the Bears surrendered a backbreaking touchdown with just over a minute left in the first half when Halliday delivered a 68-yard passing strike to running back Marcus Mason. With Cal kicking a field goal to close the half, the Bears entered the locker room down by six, 21-15.
Washington State’s six-point advantage endured until the Cougars tacked on a touchdown with seven and a half minutes into the third. After wide receiver Isiah Myers turned a 10-yard pass from Halliday into a 30-yard gain, Mason rumbled up the middle on the next play for a 10-yard rushing touchdown, pushing the margin to 28-15.
After a turnover on downs by Cal, the Cougars stuck the dagger in the Bears when Halliday found a streaking Mayle over the middle for a 72-yard touchdown. Left in isolation against Mayle, Cal cornerback Isaac Lapite offered little resistance, falling to the turf as Mayle crossed over the goal line.
“Nobody cares about the excuses,” Dykes said. “I could sit out here and give you a litany of excuses, but I’m not going to.We have no confidence right now, and we’re a fragile football team.”