Washington State had one foot squarely in the cross hairs Saturday night when Pat Barnes jumped in front of the barrel.
The California quarterback, his team within 2 yards of a monumental comeback and its first 6-0 start in 46 yards, fumbled the ball away with 1:11 remaining.
Duane Stewart recovered for WSU, which ran down the clock to 9 seconds before taking an intentional safety that allowed the Cougars to avoid having to punt from their own end zone.
Just like that, WSU escaped with a 21-18 victory that enhanced its position as a contender for one of the four bowl berths allotted the Pacific-10 Conference.
“We have a real good team coming in next week in USC and we’re real excited about that,” Price said.
WSU is 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Pac-10. Cal, ranked 19th coming in, fell to 2-1 in the conference.
The Cougars, playing inspired football in the absence of injured linebacker Johnny Nansen, jumped on Cal from the start and rode tailback Michael Black to a 21-3 halftime lead in front of a shivering Martin Stadium crowd announced at 27,182 fans.
Black carried 25 times for a season-high 214 yards overall, but helped Cal overcome most of WSU’s halftime cushion by losing a couple of second-half fumbles.
“I don’t think it was a letdown (in the second half),” WSU coach Mike Price said. “I think Barnes is a real good player and they’re 5-0 for a reason.”
A third Black fumble, this one with 4 minutes left and WSU ahead 21-16, was negated by what television replays showed to be an incorrect call. Cal defensive end Andy Jacobs wrestled the ball from Black while the play was still live, but WSU was allowed to maintain possession.
The Cougars kept the drive alive for another play, and Jeff Banks punted with less than 3 minutes remaining. Cal took over at its own 20-yard-line, where Barnes quickly went to work.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior moved Cal into WSU territory with three straight completions. Fullback Marc Vera followed with a 13-yard run to the WSU 19, setting up a 17-yard completion to Na’il Benjamin.
On first-and-goal, Barnes took the center snap cleanly and started to drop back. That’s when he fumbled without being touched, ruining a 371-yard passing performance.
“I asked Pat what happened and he said, ‘I don’t know,”’ first-year Cal coach Steve Mariucci said. “It was supposed to be a handoff to (Brandon) Willis, score a touchdown, win the game.
“It’s too bad because we had a chance to win it there at the end.
The victory was WSU’s second over a ranked opponent this season - Oregon was ranked 25th.
Ray Jackson got the Cougars rolling early.
The backup safety, wearing Nansen’s No. 4 instead of his usual No.2, started the avalanche with a blocked punt on Cal’s first possession. Teammate Dee Moronkola recovered in the end zone, putting WSU ahead 7-0.
The Cougars kept Cal from a quick recovery by controlling both lines of scrimmage for the rest of the half.
On offense, left tackle Scott Sanderson repeatedly mauled Cal’s Jacobs, helping Black become the seventh Cougar to rush for more than 200 yards in a game. Reuben Mayes holds the school record, having rushed for 357 yards against Oregon in 1984.
“I missed two games (with an ankle injury), so I wanted to come back and prove something to myself,” Black said.
Defensively, the Cougars used a combination of well-timed blitzes and sheer power up front, forcing the Bears to pass for their yards.
That formula allowed the Cougars to take the big halftime lead - an advantage that might have been much greater. Tony Truant missed field-goal tries from 34 and 47 yards in the half, and quarterback Ryan Leaf hit on just 8 of 20 pass attempts.
Leaf finished with 16 completions in 34 attempts, good for 218 yards. The nationally televised game started at 7:23 p.m. and didn’t end until 11:12.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Washington St. 21, California 18 California 0 3 7 8 - 18 Washington St 7 14 0 0 - 21 WSUMoronkola blocked punt recovery in end zone (Truant kick) WSUCarpenter 11 pass from Leaf (Truant kick) WSULeaf 1 run (Truant kick,) Cal-FG Longwell 43 Cal-Vera 8 run (Longwell kick) Cal-Gonzalez 23 pass from Barnes (pass failed) Cal-Safety, Leaf ran out of end zone A-27,182 Cal WSU First downs 28 20 Rushes-yards 36-44 34-202 Passing 371 218 Comp-Att-Int 33-52-0 16-35-1 Return Yards 2 81 Punts-Avg. 8-38.6 5-48.2 Fumbles-Lost 4-3 2-2 Penalties-Yards 10-76 9-78 Time of Possession 33:20 26:40 Individual statistics RUSHINGCalifornia, Willis 18-26, Vera 4-25, O’Neal 4-17, Barnes 10-(minus 24). WSU, Black 25-214, Gilmore 2-14, Leaf 7-(minus 26). PASSINGCalifornia, Barnes 33-52-0-371. WSU, Leaf 16-34-1-218, McWashington 0-1-0-0. RECEIVINGCalifornia, Shaw 10-108, Douglas 7-93, Vera 6-46, Gonzalez 5-59, Benjamin 4-57, Willis 1-8. WSU, Carpenter 5-45, Knuff 4-41, Black 3-51, Taylor 2-41, McKenzie 1-5, McWashington 1-35.
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