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Analysis: Washington State’s season takes another unfortunate turn in 33-20 loss to California

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 9, 2019

Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon, left, is sacked by California’s Ben Schrider in the first half Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (Ben Margot / AP)
Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon, left, is sacked by California’s Ben Schrider in the first half Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Berkeley, Calif. (Ben Margot / AP)

BERKELEY, Calif. – If it says anything about Washington State’s dull performance at Cal on Saturday night, Mike Leach actually thought the Cougars were a bit sharper on defense than they were on offense.

And just wait until you hear how bad the defense was.

The Cougars lost 33-20 to the Golden Bears at Memorial Coliseum, giving up more than 30 points to a team that hadn’t scored that many since Nov. 24, 2018. Until Saturday, Cal’s Pac-12 high had been 20 points (against Washington) and it had been held to 41 points in the last four games combined.

Backup quarterback Devon Modster and the Bears weren’t too far from reaching that total in this game alone. Cal punched in two touchdowns in the final 6 minutes, 15 seconds – Modster’s 13-yard option keeper was the final dagger – to snap a four-game losing streak, and the Bears sent the Cougars packing with their fourth road loss and their fifth in Pac-12 play.

It puts Leach’s team in a precarious position with three games remaining. The Cougars (4-5, 1-5) need two wins in their final three games – against Stanford and Oregon State at home and Washington on the road – to secure a postseason berth for the fifth straight year. WSU announced the Stanford game will kick off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

“We’ve definitely regressed,” said Leach, who was encouraged by his team’s play in a 41-10 win over Colorado and in a 37-35 loss to No. 7 Oregon. “As coaches, we have not been able to turn this into a consistently tough team. Some of all this nicey-nice positive stuff we’ve experimented with, well, that experiment has failed.”

Cal’s offense, statistically the worst in the Pac-12 at just 12.2 points per game, outgunned Washington State’s offense, statistically the best in the conference, at more than 37 ppg. The Golden Bears finished with 427 yards of total offense to the Cougars’ 423.

When quarterback Anthony Gordon was intercepted on the second play from scrimmage, Cal manufactured a touchdown just one snap later on Christopher Brown Jr.’s 27-yard scoring run.

Later on, the Golden Bears capitalized on another critical error from the visitors, turning Easop Winston Jr.’s fumble into six points when Modster connected with Brown Jr. for a 13-yard passing touchdown that made it 20-11.

Gordon completed 45 of 58 passes for 407 yards and two touchdowns, but his lone pick was costly. His offensive line committed a rash of penalties that regularly put the quarterback behind the chains. The rushing game chipped in just 16 yards on 14 attempts, and standout sophomore running back Max Borghi had only 63 yards on 16 total touches.

“Got to be sharper and execute in the first half,” Gordon said. “We squandered a whole first half and put our whole team in a bad position there. So we’ve got to execute better on offense.”

To Leach’s point, WSU wasn’t magnificent in any aspect of the game, perhaps with the exception of a few special teams units. The Cougars blocked Cal’s PAT after the first touchdown, and a field goal ricocheted off Lamonte McDougle’s helmet late in the third quarter.

“I thought defense played better than offense today,” Leach said. “I thought the only team we had today that played well was field-goal block. We may be one of the best field-goal block teams in America. Outside of that, I don’t have anything good to say about us as a coaching staff, or us as a team.”

Leach reconsidered a few minutes later as he was reminded that kicker Blake Mazza improved to 15 of 15 on the season with two more field goals, from 30 and 35 yards out.

“Good for Blake,” Leach said. “OK, another bright spot, Blake Mazza. So there, we’re good at field-goal block and we’re good at kicking field goals. So yeah, we’re terribly excited about that.”

Modster, who accounted for just three touchdowns in four games prior to this one, was responsible for four on Saturday – three passing and one rushing – and should be in the running for the Pac-12’s weekly offensive honor this Monday. WSU’s opponents have claimed the award four times this season after a game against the Cougars.

Gordon found Brandon Arconado 12 times for 130 yards and a touchdown. It was a career high in catches for Arconado and the fifth 100-yard receiving game of his season. Winston Jr. added another nine catches for 113 yards.

Asked about playing against a pass-heavy offense, Cal linebacker and Spokane native Evan Weaver said, “I feel like it correlated with our defense very well. We have a bunch of dudes that can cover and we have a defensive line that can rush and we proved that today.”

Since Justin Wilcox took over at Cal, the Bears have held the Cougars to 42 points in three meetings. It’s also been six years, and four meetings, since WSU has won a game at Memorial Stadium.

Weaver, the Gonzaga Prep graduate who’s leading the country in tackles, had 10 for the Golden Bears and one tackle for loss. Jaylin Hawkins played a part in both of the turnovers Cal forced, intercepting Gordon’s first-quarter throw and forcing Winston’s fumble later on.

Cal’s offense also got a boost from Brown Jr., who had 108 all-purpose yards with one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown for the Golden Bears.

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