Better line play can’t help WSU dig out of early hole
BERKELEY, Calif. – Standing in a tunnel under ancient Memorial Stadium, Paul Wulff was talking once again about time.
But this was different.
Wulff wasn’t talking about the time the program needs before it can avoid defeats like the 49-17 one the California Golden Bears pinned on Washington State. That’s ground he’s covered often in the 22 months he’s been head coach.
No, this time he was talking about how short a time it took Saturday for the Cougars to fall behind by three touchdowns, the fourth time that’s occurred this season.
“We just put ourselves in a darn hole,” is how Wulff put it.
And he was talking about the time quarterback Jeff Tuel had to throw and, when he got it, how well the freshman used it.
“What he did do, what was the big growth today was he trusted his protection more, unlike the last few weeks,” Wulff said. “When he trusted it, he was able to step up in the pocket and make some big throws.”
Big throws, yes, but ultimately immaterial. That’s because Washington State’s fifth consecutive Pac-10 loss was ensured in near-record time.
The Bears struck for four first-quarter touchdowns, three of them touchdowns passes from quarterback Kevin Riley.
Put into a 28-3 chasm in the first 14 minutes, WSU spent the next 46 trying to claw out.
By the time the young Cougars (1-6, 0-5 Pac-10) settled down – Cal had 178 of its 559 yards of total offense and 130 return yards in that 14-minute span – the hole was too deep.
“I’m just disappointed by the way we responded to some of the situations,” said co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball. “We got on our heels, which happens with a young football team, and we just didn’t respond very well.”
For once this year, the offense did, led by Tuel.
He completed 28 of 42 passes for 354 yards, the second most for a Washington State freshman. The most? Drew Bledsoe’s 385 against Arizona in 1990.
With guard Zack Williams and B.J. Guerra returning from leg injuries the WSU offense put on its best showing against a Pac-10 school in Wulff’s tenure.
And it all started up front.
“That’s a well-known fact in football,” said freshman Gino Simone, who caught his first collegiate touchdown pass, a 19-yard strike from Tuel on a second-quarter, corner-post route. “When they give us time to work, we do good things.”
“He trusted (his protection) a little more,” offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said of Tuel. “I really focused (this week) with the quarterbacks getting them to understand we’ve got to step up in the pocket.”
Besides the yardage numbers, Tuel also threw two touchdowns, led WSU on five drives of more than 50 yards – the first time that’s happened this season – and didn’t have a turnover.
“I was able to step up in the pocket and deliver a few times,” Tuel said. “I had faith in my O-line, trusted my O-line and I feel pretty good about it.”
Literally stepping up, Tuel ignored the collapsing pocket – he was still sacked five times – to connect with Johnny Forzani on their second long touchdown throw in two games.
“It was like the perfect ball,” Forzani said of the throw. “He made it easy for me.”
But all the yardage did was keep Cal (5-2, 2-2) within shouting distance – and that’s all the WSU defense did with Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen and the rest of the Bears’ offense most of the day.
With WSU unable to find the end zone in the second half despite two long drives the Bears expanded their lead despite playing conservatively.
Best and Vereen split 26 carries, with Best exploding for 159 yards – 61 coming on a quick hitter up the middle early in the second quarter. The junior also scored Cal’s first touchdown on a 27-yard pass from Riley less than a minute in and another on a short third-quarter run.
“That back is good, goodness gracious,” Ball said. “We’re not the only one he’s gashed all year.”
Riley was good as well. The oft-maligned junior quarterback was 12 of 18 for 229 yards and three touchdowns. His longest hookup, a 61-yard toss to Jeremy Ross, didn’t get to the end zone, but Ross had found a way earlier, returning a first-quarter punt 76 yards to make it 21-0. That followed his game-opening 54-yard kickoff return, setting up Best’s reception.
“Special teams was a big piece” of WSU’s slow start, Wulff said. “We open up, give up a big return and they score right away. Then there was the punt return.”
And the defense didn’t step up.
“We know we’re young,” Ball said. “We know people are getting tired of that as an excuse, but it’s the truth. We’re a young football team. We’re learning. We just need some time.”
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