PULLMAN – Washington State marched past the California 20-yard line three times against the No. 10 football team in the country.
Three times the Cougars staggered back to the sidelines without a touchdown.
WSU had its chances against California on Saturday in Martin Stadium, but what has been a problem this season – failing to score in the red zone – moved closer to a full-blown epidemic against the Golden Bears as the Cougars watched a game full of potential turn into a 21-3 loss.
“I think we’ll just change the name of it,” offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller deadpanned. “That oughta help. The ‘score zone,’ maybe.”
The Cougars (4-3, 2-2 Pac-10) managed to pick up a 25-yard field goal early in the second quarter, but that was it for the game as Cal (6-1, 4-0) sat on its three first-half touchdowns and rode out that same 21-3 margin for the entire second half.
The Cougars essentially matched Cal’s prolific offense yard for yard, finishing with 350 to Cal’s 353. But when it counted most, WSU’s offense reliably found the quickest way to self-destruct.
On third downs the Cougars were 0 for 11. Even taking a chance on six fourth downs resulted in only two successful conversions.
Throw in the red zone struggles, and the recipe for offensive meltdown was complete. Even a 70-yard run by Derrell Hutsona – one of the few rushing plays that went right for WSU – was of little help because it landed the Cougars on the 5-yard line.
From there, WSU barely budged the ball forward in two attempts, then had a third-down throw to running back Dwight Tardy go for a touchdown. Until, that is, the call was reversed by instant replay, pushing the ball back to the 1-yard line. An Alex Brink sneak on fourth down was unsuccessful, and Cal sent the Cougars back to the bench frustrated once again.
“(It’s) execution as much as anything,” head coach Bill Doba said. “I mean, what do you call? We tried to throw it. We tried to run it. We have to be able to knock somebody off the line of scrimmage and get some movement.
“You’ve got to give their defense some credit, too. They basically manhandled our front.”
Early, it was apparent that the Cougars running game was going to be of little help, and except for the Hutsona run in the third quarter WSU finished with 18 rushes for 18 yards.
The Cougars were playing without starting tight end Cody Boyd and blocking tight end Ben Woodard, both out with injuries. Possibly as a result, the Cougars were more apt to throw, passing on 41 of 60 offensive plays.
“When you’re piecing things together on Tuesday and Wednesday and trying to put together a running game, it gets hard,” Doba said. “It’s always tough when you’re one-dimensional, whether you’re running it all the time or passing it all the time.”
The Bears also helped their cause early by getting the game’s first points after blocking a punt deep in WSU territory. The Cougars came up inches short on third down, and then Nu’u Tafisi deflected and recovered a Darryl Blunt punt, setting Cal up for a two-play touchdown drive.
Cal got into the red zone twice more in the first half, and scored touchdowns each time, with quarterback Nate Longshore running for one and star running back Marshawn Lynch – who finished with 152 yards on 25 carries – getting the other two.
The Bears had scored at least 41 points in each of the last five games, but head coach Jeff Tedford was more than willing to take the win as Cal hadn’t won in Pullman since 1979.
“Sometimes one side of the ball has to step up and, thankfully, the defense did today,” Tedford said. “We had an opportunity to erase a lot of past history here and put our mark on Cal football.”
The Cougars’ three losses this season have all come against top-10 teams, but for a squad expecting bigger and better things the defeat was seen as a significant setback.
As they discovered in the red zone, getting close isn’t always good enough.
“We had our opportunities, we really did,” Levenseller said. “Now it just seems like we’re a little out of synch down there. It’s not a lot all the time. But in football, a little out is out. The throw’s good and the route’s bad, or the route’s good and then we don’t make the throw.”