PULLMAN – As bad as Washington State’s defense has been on third down the past two seasons, the numbers don’t lie: The Cougars have been even worse this year, failing to get off the field 47 percent of the time.
After allowing conversions on two of California’s first three third-down opportunities, the Cougs dug in, forcing the Bears to try a field goal (which missed) and punt three times. And you had to like WSU’s chances midway through the first quarter when the Bears faced third-and-20 near midfield, clinging to a one-point lead.
But quarterback Brock Mansion made a short flip to Jeremy Ross on an inside screen and Ross milked 21 yards out of it – the last 10 or so against a pile of a half-dozen Cougs being driven back on their heels.
Five plays later, the Bears were in the end zone with the final points of a 20-13 victory.
“We just didn’t get him down – no excuses,” said cornerback Nolan Washington, who had an interception earlier in the game. “I thought I heard a whistle at one point, but we have to get him down. That’s embarrassing. We have to make that play.
“If we get him down, the offense gets the ball back and who knows what happens? That’s on the players. You can’t blame Coach (Paul) Wulff, you can’t blame Coach (Chris) Ball. There’s no call for that.”
It appeared that Ross was aided significantly by a push from behind by his blockers, but WSU linebacker C.J. Mizell was skeptical.
“I think it was more of us just pushing him, trying to get in and get the ball out,” he said. “We should have just taken him down. It would have been smarter.”
Redshirt junior Aire Justin hasn’t played a lot in his four years in Pullman, with nagging injuries and a coaching change derailing the Van Nuys, Calif., native’s opportunities.
But he was handed one against California when usual starting cornerback Daniel Simmons went down with a shoulder injury near the end of Thursday’s practice.
Justin did what he could to earn more chances.
Though 6-foot-2 Marvin Jones outbattled him on a 50-yard completion on Cal’s first scoring drive, Justin did make plays, as his five tackles attest.
But no defensive play, not even his first career sack in the fourth quarter, was bigger then his interception.
Covering Shane Vereen out of the backfield late in the third quarter, Justin ran with the running back down the left sideline.
Mansion tried to fit a pass in but Justin, turning at just the right moment, grabbed the ball before it could hit the ground. After a replay, his first career interception was in the books.
“Coach is always is always harping on the fade, just stick them, get in (step) and look. I tried to do that,” Justin said. “I just tried to have my good base, turned and looked and it was right there.”
Since returning from an early-season hamstring problem (he’s also missed time with a concussion), Justin has returned punts. He was averaging just 3.8 yards an attempt until gathering one in late in the second quarter, bursting through a hole and sprinting for a season-high 33 yards.
The Cougars came in with a long injury list and it got longer.
Running back Marcus Richmond left the game in the third quarter with a left hamstring injury. Another running back, Arthur Burns, suffered a left quadriceps strain just a few minutes later.
But in between, the most frightening injury occurred.
On a fourth-and-3 at the Cal 41, Jeff Tuel connected with Gino Simone on a 5-yard slant. Linebacker D.J. Holt was dragging Simone down from behind when 6-3, 285-pound defensive lineman Trevor Guyton launched himself helmet-first into Simone, catching the receiver on the facemask.
There was no penalty called.
Simone got up and tried to walk to the sidelines, but wobbled to the right and went down.
Simone suffered a concussion.
“I just remember catching the ball, then stumbling off the field,” Simone said.
With starting quarterback Kevin Riley out for the season, Cal turned to redshirt junior Mansion.
The 6-5, 233-pound Mansion finished with decent numbers, completing 12 of 24 for 171 yards. But he also threw two interceptions and missed a handful of open receivers, many times having his pass sail high.
But he did make two big plays with his feet, faking to running backs and going around left end for 28 yards one time and 10 the next. Both runs got the Bears out of their territory, the first coming from the 5, the next from the 14.
“It turned into a huge play for us,” Mansion said of his career-high 28-yard keeper. “That kind of got our confidence up. The sideline erupted a little bit and just set us up for another big play.”
That came three plays later when he teamed with Jones on the 50-yard completion, another career-high for Mansion.
Here’s the difference
Want to know the difference in the game? Check the defensive statistics.
The Bears were led in tackles by two defensive linemen, Cameron Jordan and Guyton; the Cougars by linebacker Mizell and safety Deone Bucannon.
Jordan, a senior defensive end, had 12 tackles, three behind the line of scrimmage, including one solo sack and another with help from tackle Guyton. A junior, Guyton had seven tackles and two solo sacks.
Mizell and Bucannon, both true freshmen, had 12 and 10 tackles, respectively. Mizell had two for loss (one sack) and Bucannon had one.
Mizell also had the tackle that elicited the most oohs and aahs, grabbing running back Shane Vereen around the middle, lifting the 204-pound junior off the ground and throwing him to the turf.
“I was just trying to get the crowd behind us, get the team clicking, get the spark back,” Mizell said.