PULLMAN – Paul Wulff had a specific point in mind.
But what he said also touched an overarching theme.
“We’re struggling trying to capitalize on opportunities when we do get them,” the Washington State coach said Saturday after the Cougars fell to California, 20-13, before 17,648 in a sun-drenched Martin Stadium.
Wulff was referring to the WSU offense not being able to convert chances presented by the defense – forcing two turnovers – and special teams – a 33-yard punt return to the Cal 27 – into touchdowns.
But he just as easily could have been talking about the Cougars’ opportunity to break a long list of losing streaks, from their 16 consecutive Pac-10 defeats, to the 18 games against FBS foes without a win, to this year’s eight consecutive losses, giving WSU a 1-9 overall record and a 0-7 Pac-10 mark.
To a man, the Cougar players who trudged to the interview room talked about the crushing nature of the defeat.
Linebacker C.J. Mizell, who led one of WSU’s better defensive efforts of the season with 12 tackles, put it best.
“Every loss hurts, but this one hurts a little more because we had them by the neck and we just let off of them,” the freshman said.
After all, the Cougars scored first, which hasn’t happened since the USC defeat earlier this season. They led at halftime, which hasn’t happened in a Pac-10 game since the 2007 Apple Cup.
And they were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter, which hasn’t happened in seemingly forever, with three chances to either take a lead or tie the game.
In nine plays, the Cougars lost 4 yards.
But that was the story on this day. Every time the Bears opened a door, the Cougars closed the window.
“The bottom line is we didn’t make plays we needed to make,” offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said.
It started, but certainly didn’t finish, with quarterback Jeff Tuel.
The sophomore suffered through his worst complete-game passing effort of his career, completing just 9 of 25 attempts. His 92 yards in the air were the fewest he’s had all season and snapped a streak of nine consecutive games of at least 200 yards. All this against a school he torched for 354 yards last season.
Though Tuel missed some open targets, he didn’t get much help. There were at least five dropped balls and six sacks, which doesn’t count the times Tuel was forced to squirm out of trouble.
“Our protection today was not great,” Wulff understated. “Jeff was being pressured tremendously.”
Not that there were a lot of people open.
“Their two big corners were pressing out two outside receivers, Jared (Karstetter) and Marquess (Wilson), all game,” Wulff said. “That got to us. The did a good job messing our timing up.”
Karstetter, fourth in the Pac-10 with 4.55 catches per game, had one. Wilson, ninth in the nation with 98.33 yards per game, had 50 on four catches.
Even the Cougars’ one touchdown drive, giving them an early second-quarter 7-0 lead, included 60 yards rushing, the final 10 on Logwone’s Mitz’s third touchdown of the season.
WSU finished with 102 yards rushing – despite 39 lost on the sacks – and just 92 passing, the first time the ratio has been tilted toward the ground game since the Oregon rout last season.
Mitz had 54 on 10 carries and Tuel had 34, but gained 73 on 12 rushing attempts, as Sturdy turned him loose for the first time this year.
“We need to utilize him more in the running game to get more runs,” Wulff said. “If we’re going to try to win games, he’s going to have to do it with his legs as well, to a certain degree.”
The Bears tied the game immediately – Shane Vereen powering in from 2 yards out, part of the junior’s 112 yards on 25 carries – but presented WSU with a huge opportunity soon after when Aire Justin broke free for a season-long punt return.
But four plays lost 6 yards and Andrew Furney had to convert a 51-yard field goal, the first of his career. Three plays later Brock Mansion, making his first start at quarterback for 5-4 Cal (3-3 in the Pac-10), replacing injured long-time starter Kevin Riley, threw an out pattern right to Nolan Washington at the Bears’ 45.
The redshirt freshman returned his first career pick to the 40 with 46 seconds before half. Three plays gained 8 yards and Furney tried and 50-yarder. It missed right.
“We need to get touchdowns,” Wulff said.
That was apparent when the Bears put together back-to-back 27-yard plays – the second receiver Jeremy Ross’ touchdown run – on their first second-half possession.
Another Mansion interception – he finished 12 of 24 for 171 yards and the two picks – gave WSU the ball near midfield, but seven plays netted just 13 yards and Furney had to convert a 48-yard field goal.
Still, WSU trailed just 14-13 going into the final 15 minutes.
The defense, which held Cal to 383 yards of total offense, the second fewest its yielded all season, made one stop – WSU followed with a three-and-out – and should have made another.
The Bears had a third-and-20 at their 44 with about 8 minutes left. Mansion hit Ross on a slant and Mizell grabbed him at the WSU 45. But the 5-foot-11 Ross dragged Mizell and most of the Cougar defense for another 10 yards and a first down.
“We were too focused on trying to hold him up and stripping the ball out and he was just moving the pile, instead of just trying to get him down,” said Justin, who replaced an injured Daniel Simmons at corner and had the second WSU interception. “He just kept moving.”
And the Bears kept the chains moving, finally scoring with 5:24 left on Vereen’s 1-yard run. When Anthony Laurenzi blocked the point after, however, WSU was still within 20-13.
The Cougar offense was given two opportunities, though, to tie the game and came up empty.
And Wulff was left to explain. Again, something he said covered more than the intended target.
Before addressing Ross’ 21-yard pile-dragging gain that kept Cal’s fourth-quarter drive alive, WSU’s third-year coach shook his head.
“That was one we had to get,” he said. “Should have got. Didn’t get it.”
He could have been talking about the game as well.