Cal football gets mauled on road by No. 23 Cougars, 56-21

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Pullman, WA — If Cal football (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12) was looking for a way to halt its two-game skid, Saturday’s inauspicious start against No. 23 Washington State (8-2, 7-0) did anything but.

After a quick three and out from the offense to open the game, Cal’s special teams surrendered a 75-yard punt return touchdown to Kaleb Fossum. For the Cougars, that play marked their first punt return score in more than 11 years. For the Bears, it marked a long night ahead in Pullman en route to a 56-21 loss.

“We got our butts kicked three weeks in a row and it sucks,” said Cal quarterback Davis Webb. “We had plenty of chances as an offensive group to keep it close before halftime and kind of get us into the ballgame but we just didn’t take advantage of it.”

It was clear from the get-go that Webb was eager to re-establish his chemistry with wide receiver Chad Hansen, who returned after a two-game absence last week against Washington but had only 70 yards in the 66-27 blowout. Against a Cougars team ranked 95th nationally in pass defense, the Bears hoped to have more luck this time around.

Despite the urgency to integrate Hansen back into the game plan, Cal opted to try a more balanced attack in the game, finishing the first quarter with 11 pass attempts and 10 rushes.

Cal’s defense, on the other hand, lost starting safety Jaylinn Hawkins halfway into the first quarter, after Hawkins was ejected for targeting Cougars’ wide receiver Gabe Marks. With Hawkins gone, an already decimated Cal defense was tested further, and this time against a prolific Washington State passing game.

Though he often had plenty of time in the pocket, Cougars quarterback Luke Falk looked unsettled early on. The redshirt junior was intercepted on his first series by Cal safety Khari Vanderbilt, who earned his first career pick as Falk overthrew a wide-open River Cracraft. The Cougars eventually took a 14-0 lead late in the opening quarter on a 2-yard rushing touchdown by Gerard Wicks and tacked on another on a free play touchdown to Cracraft.

Faced with a 21-7 deficit halfway into the second quarter, the Bears’ offense saw a much-needed resurgence of the Webb-Hansen connection. With Hansen tallying 72 yards on three receptions, Cal’s offense was finally clicking as its most important piece seemed to be back to his former self.

But what Cal giveth, Cal taketh away.

Webb, desperately searching for a receiver on third and 3 with less than four minutes left in the first half, was picked off by linebacker Nate DeRider, who returned his first career interception from the end zone to the Cougars’ 21-yard line. Tied for sixth in the nation in turnover margin, Washington State capitalized on the mistake, with Falk finding Cracraft for the second time to take a commanding 28-7 lead into halftime.

Out of the Bears’ numerous struggles this season, one has been their inability to begin the second half with their foot on the gas. Cal has scored more than seven points in the third only once this season — in a 45-40 loss to San Diego State — and had notched only 10 third-quarter points in its past three games coming into the matchup.

The Bears fared no better Saturday night, scoring only once on a 19-yard touchdown to Bug Rivera to bring the score to 35-14. For once, it looked as if Cal would need to lean on its defense to stay in the game.

And the much-maligned defense did what it could against a talented Cougars offense to start the second half, yielding only a third touchdown to Cracraft. But by then, the exhausted Bears were undeniably running on fumes, allowing Washington State to pad its lead.

By the time the clock hit zero, the defense had given up 56 points and 654 total yards, the fifth consecutive game that Cal’s opponent has scored 45 or more points.

“We’re not playing particularly well right now, but it doesn’t help when we’ve lost seven of our eight safeties,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “That’s a pretty significant thing to try and overcome, but we gotta figure out a way to get it done without them.”

Michelle Lee covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @michelle_e_lee.