Maybe it was all the pre-game hype about how Cal hadn’t won at Pullman since 1979, or maybe the Cougars seemed so dangerous because they were only one play short of dethroning USC. Perhaps it was only Cal radio announcer Joe Starkey’s maddening penchant for emphasizing the deficiencies of the Bears while getting overly excited about opponents’ big plays. Whatever the reason, I can’t recall ever being more nervous about a 21 - 3 victory in my life. Last weekend’s Cal game wasn’t televised, so I have few concrete impressions of the game. And as I already mentioned, Starkey’s game calling leaves much to be desired. So I apologize if this post is about as exciting as Longshore’s channeling of a Holmoe era Kyle Boller was.
Playing for only the third time on the road this year, Cal had four fumbles, several drive killing penalties, interceptions, and zero offensive rhythm in the second half. If ever there was a recipe for losing a conference road game to an inferior team, that’s pretty much what it would read like. Luckily for the Golden Bears, the defense turned in their most dominating performance of the year thus far; spoiling the Cougars’ upset bid.
After an uncharacteristic fumble (luckily recovered by Cal’s David Gray) on the opening kickoff, the Bears got off to a fast start. Playing on an injured ankle, Marshawn Lynch ripped off a 42 yard run on the first play from scrimmage. Another couple of runs by Lynch and Justin Forsett had the Bears in business on the Washington State 28 yard line when Nate Longshore threw the first of his two interceptions.
The Bear’s next possession began on the Wazzu 5 yard line after Nu’u Tafisi blocked and recovered a Washington State punt. Two plays later, Marshawn found the end zone for his fifth rushing TD of the year.
Cal moved down the field fairly quickly on the next series, picking up big chunks of yardage on a 28 yard pass to DeSean Jackson and a 20 yard completion to Robert Jordan. It appeared that Jordan rolled over the defender who made the tackle and into the end zone without ever touching the ground, for what should have been a touchdown. Sadly, Pac 10 officiating woes continued when they blew the initial call, and failed to overturn it after replay review. Fortunately for the Bears and for the officials, Longshore made it a moot point by taking it in himself from the 1 making the score 14 - 0.
The Bears last scoring drive ate up most of the second quarter, and ended in an 8 yard TD run by Marshawn, his 6th of the year. This drive was probably the most impressive by the Bears, since it started deep in their own territory and was pretty methodical. The lone play of over 15 yards was a 23 yard catch and run from Longshore to Forsett. Other than that, the Bears drove steadily down the field exhibiting a very balanced attack, with Marshawn strolling in untouched from 8 yards out.
Despite the lackluster performance of the passing game, there were some positives to be taken from this game. Most importantly, the O-line proved that it can handle its own this year. Wazzu came into the game leading the entire nation with 27 sacks, 10 by the leading pass rusher in the nation, Mkristo Bruce. Bruce was shut out, and Longshore was only sacked once on what was really a coverage sack. This is the second time this year that the Bear O-line has faced a team leading the country in sacks, and both times they've shut them down. The line also paved the way for a grinding running attack that was successful to the tune of 177 yards (152 by Lynch) and 3 rushing scores. Reportedly, QB Nate Longshore was ill, so maybe he gets a pass (no pun intended) for this game. With all the success that the offense has had of late, especially with the lighting fast pass plays, it was good to see that the Golden Bears can still pound the rock when the electricity shorts out.
While Wazzu isn’t exactly Oregon in terms of offensive firepower, the performance turned in by the defense was, in my opinion, even more impressive than last week’s. The Defensive Line continued its improved play by shutting down the Cougars’ run game. Other than one 70 yard run, the Bears gave up only 18 yards on the ground, and held Washington State without a touchdown for the first time since 2000. Linebackers Desmond Bishop and Zack Follett had another dominating game with 8 tackles each and Follett added another sack. The Bear Secondary came away with two more interceptions including number six for super stud CB Daymeion Hughes. When it counted the most, the Bears again and again answered the call, holding the Cougars to an abysmal 0 of 11 on 3rd downs and 2 of 6 on 4th downs.
Although the entire defense had a great game, I think special praise has to go to the goat of the Tennessee game, CB Syd’Quan Thompson. He’s still got a thing or two to learn from Hughes, but Thompson has really started to come along since he was thrown into the fire opening week. The effort he showed in racing across field and running down Washington State’s track star RB Derrell Hutsona from behind not only saved a touchdown, but perhaps the game. Of course, the defense had a great goal line stand to capitalize on Thompson’s hustle; including a pass defended by Thompson and a great play by DL Brandon Mebane on the 4th and goal from the 1 yard line. But at that point in the game, had Wazzu scored, the entire complexion of the game would have been different. Thompson’s early struggles were really to be expected of a freshman starter, and just remember Cal fans, against Washington State last year even the great D. Hughes was torched. Maybe Thompson is ready to develop into this year’s superstar freshman a la Marshawn & DeSean.
I wrote earlier this season about how the Defense was going to have to lead this team to its
success, and this game illustrates that point perfectly. Not only does the defense have to shut down high powered teams like Oregon and (a healthy) USC, they’re going to have to deal with teams like Wazzu that know they have to gamble in order to beat Cal. Washington State started going for it on 4th down from only their second possession, and continued to take a lot of risks throughout the rest of the game. Other than USC, the rest of the teams on Cal’s remaining schedule are going to be gunning for the Golden Bears just like Wazzu did. Some of them (i.e. the furds) aren’t even going to be fighting for a bowl birth so they have absolutely nothing to lose. Hopefully, the offense will just keep putting up 40+ on teams every week from now on. But if they have another game like this where they keep giving the ball back to the opponent, then the defense is just going to have to keep stepping up and making plays. Luckily for the Golden Bears, they can and will.