Cal stomps Washington State 33-20 behind electric offensive showing

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After a performance that saw Cal leave Utah with a big, fat zero on the scoreboard, a season-high in points is something that few, if any, saw coming this evening. The Bears defeated the Cougars 33-20, ending a four-game losing skid and keeping the team’s contention for a bowl game alive and well.

“It’s awesome to get a win. Win four games, lose four games. We’ve got to get back with the trend and win another four in a row,” joked Cal linebacker Evan Weaver. “October’s obviously not been our month the past two years, so let’s make it November.”

Fans who filed into the stadium a few minutes late were surely bamboozled when they saw the Jumbotron displaying a score of 6-2. Most would expect a couple of field goals and a safety, but the first few plays of the game were anything but normal.

After a quick first-down run by the Cougars, Cal safety Jaylinn Hawkins intercepted an uncharacteristically errant throw on Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon’s first attempt, giving Hawkins — who led the Pac-12 in interceptions last year — his first pick of the season.

With Cal now sporting a prime field position, the next possession continued the game’s wacky start. On the offense’s first play of the game, Cal running back Christopher Brown Jr. bounced the ball outside, finding an enormous chunk of greenery en route to a 27-yard touchdown run that shocked the California Memorial Stadium crowd.

The extra point quickly quieted them, though, as Greg Thomas’ kick was blocked right into the hands of Washington State’s George Hicks III, who sprinted down the field into the end zone, giving the Cougars two points in a type of play rarely seen.

With the return of two valuable starters in receiver Kekoa Crawford and center Mike Saffell, offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin opened up the playbook in a way he hadn’t been able to in the past few games. This was apparent in the first quarter, as quarterback Devon Modster — who also returned from an injury — threw deep on multiple occasions, completing passes to Jordan Duncan and Crawford on fly routes. While Modster put up a quality stat line in the first half, he did miss a few deep attempts that would have gone for major gains, if not touchdowns.

“He was pretty efficient with the ball,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “I think he’s probably thinking about a few plays where we had some home runs that we didn’t quite connect on … but I’m proud of how he handled it and competed. He practiced with a chip on his shoulder last week and this week, and it showed up.”

The quarterback was able to find tight end Gavin Reinwald for a 9-yard touchdown to open the second quarter, putting the Bears up 13-5. A few possessions later, Gordon answered with a strike to Brandon Arconado, who had seven catches in the first half alone. The Cougars would fail the two-point conversion, which left the score at 13-11 heading into halftime.

Not known for their ability to pound the ball, the Cougars were held to zero net rushing yards in the first half and only 16 total in the game. Gordon had a ridiculous 58 passing attempts, which is not out of the ordinary for Washington State’s air raid offense. Even with the constant rotation of younger players such as Branden Smith and Chigozie Anusiem onto the field, Cal was able to force a total of four punts and four turnovers on the night.

“I thought our guys competed hard,” Wilcox said of his defense. “We tried to show them some different looks … just trying to change up the picture on their offense. I thought the guys stepped up on those big downs and got off the field.”

On the other side of the field, credit must be given where credit is due. Baldwin orchestrated quite the bounce-back performance, utilizing his receivers to spread out the defense while also allowing Brown Jr. to run downfield between his tackles. He and the offense continued their outstanding evening in the second half, as back-to-back Cal touchdown drives allowed them to seal the game.

Two plays after an end-around by Trevon Clark went for 23 yards to the Washington State 15-yard line, Modster dumped the ball off to Brown Jr., who evaded two defenders with a stiff-arm on his way to the end zone, putting the home team ahead 20-11. The Cougars were able to march their way down for a field goal, but the Bears responded in bold fashion on the next drive.

Modster hit true freshman receiver Makai Polk on a screen, who then used his agility to wind his way downfield and put multiple defenders in the dirt — the 52-yard touchdown reception was one of Cal’s most electric of the season, putting the blue and gold ahead 26-14 and throwing the final dagger into Washington State’s comeback effort.

Although starting quarterback Chase Garbers will potentially return in the next week or two, Modster was a model of efficiency against the Cougars, throwing for 230 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, while also flashing his running ability with 43 yards and another touchdown on the ground.

“It was a great team win,” Modster said, after humbly labeling his performance an average effort. “The offensive line played fantastic — Coach Baldwin had great play calling and receivers made plays.”

If this game proved anything, it’s that the Bears’ defense is at its best when the offense can do its job of maintaining possession and putting points on the board. After allowing a season-high 35 points in its last affair — in which the offense did virtually nothing — Cal was able to hold a Cougars offense that averaged 41.8 points per game to just 20, including a garbage-time touchdown that came with just five seconds left in the contest.

Next week, Cal will have the chance to become bowl-eligible against an inconsistent but talented USC team. This was arguably the first game of conference play in which the Bears had both sides of the ball clicking at the same time, and if it happens again, the Trojans could be in for a rough night.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].