PULLMAN – Fans didn’t learn much by gazing at the primary scoreboard in Martin Stadium on Saturday, because technical difficulties meant that only the video screen was functioning properly.
No down-and-distance, no game clock, no point totals.
And no football team to fill in that last blank for much of the game, anyway.
Washington State did finally score another touchdown – its first since Sept. 29 – and added a second one in the fourth quarter to make things a little more interesting, the product of a spark from backup quarterback Jeff Tuel. But in the end it was simply another loss, this one 31-17 to California before 27,339 on Mike Leach bobblehead doll night.
The loss drops WSU to 2-5 and 0-4 in Pac-12 play, a much-prized bowl appearance seemingly a distant fantasy as the Cougars head into their bye week.
For the second consecutive week, starting quarterback Connor Halliday didn’t make it through the first half. But this time he was benched for good after throwing two interceptions in the game’s first 8 minutes, the senior Tuel relieving him again.
Tuel made mostly the right decisions as he completed 30 of 53 passes for 320 yards, finally putting WSU in the end zone with an 8-yard pass to Brett Bartolone in the third quarter to cut Cal’s lead at the time to 21-10.
“When (Tuel) was in, we moved the ball pretty comfortably,” coach Mike Leach said.
He added that he isn’t sure if Halliday will remain the team’s starter, and will examine the matter during the bye week.
Tuel admitted the Cougars “shot ourselves in the foot” at times on promising drives, but said the second half felt much more comfortable than previous games.
“The O-line did a tremendous job all night,” Tuel said. “They really communicated things and sorted the blitzes out and stuff. … The biggest thing was the O-line. The O-line had a great amount of confidence tonight.”
The third-quarter score was WSU’s first touchdown since its game against Oregon on Sept. 29, when Tuel relieved a banged-up Halliday and threw a touchdown pass to Marquess Wilson.
But there was no Wilson to throw to for much of Saturday. WSU’s star junior receiver was knocked out of the game in the first half after an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit by Cal defensive back Avery Sebastian, and Wilson removed his pads and changed into sweats thereafter.
Still, the Cougars had a chance to make this a one-score game. Leon Brooks rushed for 40 yards on the first play of a WSU series late in the third quarter, putting the Cougars at Cal’s 37-yard line still trailing 21-10.
But Tuel threw four straight incompletions afterward, including one on fourth-and-10.
“We slice it so thin,” Leach said, “we don’t leave ourselves any margin for error.”
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, considering the way Cal moved the ball on the ground. A balanced rushing attack totaled 318 yards, as C.J. Anderson, Isi Sofele, Brendan Bigelow and quarterback Zach Maynard each rushed for 60 yards or more. Anderson led the team with 112.
It was Cal’s steadiness that made the biggest difference. The Bears scored their first touchdown on a 69-yard run-and-catch by Keenan Allen, but their next two touchdowns – scores that allowed them to open a 21-3 lead early in the second half – came on drives of nine plays and 70 or more yards.
Allen caught 11 passes for 166 yards to lead the Bears.
“They have a lot of perimeter speed,” Leach said. “That makes it tough on anybody.”
Again, WSU allowed its opponent to score on the opening drive of the second half. Cal used Maynard’s 2-yard run to cap a 71-yard jaunt to go up by 18.
Anderson’s 29-yard TD run with 10:27 left in the game appeared to sink the Cougars for good.
Tuel did guide WSU on another scoring drive after that, tossing another 6-yard touchdown pass to Bartolone to trim Cal’s lead to 31-17 with 7:09 to play.
But after Tuel threw incomplete on a fourth down with 4 minutes to play, the Bears took the ball back and ran out the clock.
“We had opportunities to win that game,” Leach said. “There’s no question about it.”