In what many (or maybe just Cal fans) were calling a “heavyweight bout” between two 1-3 Pac-12 teams, Washington State prevailed 21 to 6 in a heartbreaking win on Cal’s homecoming weekend.
For Washington State, the objective was clear: make Cal bleed out with a million paper cuts. Operating with four wide receivers and using the quick passing game to march straight down the field, Wazzu looked prepared to play, even recovering its own blocked punt and making a first down out of it.
Cal, in fairness, also looked ready to play. A beautiful deep ball from Chase Garbers to Kekoa Crawford and a tough touchdown run from Christopher Brooks had the Bears rolling on their first drive.
That is, until special teams came back into play. A botched snap on the extra point and the aforementioned punt debacle put Cal in the hole early.
And then Calvin Jackson Jr. happened.
CALVIN. JACKSON. JR.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 2, 2021
This catch, once confirmed, sucked the air out of Strawberry Canyon. Cal’s offense — which seemed to sense it couldn’t match that spectacle — proceeded to punt both its chances and the football away multiple times. Even a pick by the Bears defense couldn’t save it, as the Cal offense still managed to throw the ball right back into the waiting hands of a Wazzu defender.
The Bears seemed content to continue punting the ball back to the Cougars, allowing their opponents to find a rhythm while they continued to trip over their own feet. WSU joined in on the fun, throwing one more interception and punting several more times. Any hope of a slugfest was gone — the Bears and the visiting Cougars were locked into a pillow fight as nervous Cal parents in the stadium looked on.
At the break, Washington State was up, 14-6.
Despite two first-half interceptions, Wazzu clearly looked more comfortable in the game. The presence of quarterback Jayden de Laura, for all his imperfections, breathed new life into the Cougars. While it was content to live in the quick game, Washington State was also comfortable airing the ball out on Cal and seemed willing to take the risk of turning the ball over to force Cal’s defense to work the whole field.
But defenses are not built to defend everything; it is an impossibility. A football field — at 120 yards long and more than 53 yards wide — is impossible for 11 bodies to perfectly defend. So, defenses are forced to choose what they take away and what they allow the offense to attempt.
Cal’s structure took away much of the middle of the field and forced de Laura to make so-called “high-variance” throws to the boundary. For what it’s worth, the strategy almost worked for the Bears. WSU was forced to throw into the sideline, running the ball to only moderate levels of success for most of the game. When the fourth quarter began, Cal was desperate to make something special happen.
Unfortunately for the Bears, the outside game ended up working out alright for the Cougars. A touchdown in the first four minutes of the second half widened the lead to 21-6, hastening the trickle of students leaving Memorial Stadium, disappointed parents in tow.
The Bears took the field, in one of those “make or break” drives early in the fourth quarter that they’ve unfortunately become all too familiar with. This time, Cal took the ball all the way down inside the Wazzu 10-yard line. On fourth and manageable, the Bears came out in an empty set and threw the ball, but too low, creating another turnover on Cal’s end.
It was at this point, midway through the fourth quarter, that only the most faithful fans of the blue and gold remained in the stands — and even they were split between staying in the stadium and heading out early to beat the traffic.
The Cal defense played well enough to win, a sentence that has been uncommon in recent weeks. The offense, on the other hand, was abysmal. Garbers was held under 200 yards passing for the first time since Week 1, when Nevada came to town.
It seems to be a familiar sentiment for fans of the Bears: The offense and defense can never play truly complementary football. It seems as though Cal’s defense sometimes operates like butter under a hot knife, while the offense tries to keep pace. Then there are times like today, where the defense bands together and creates turnovers while the offense sputters.
“We needed to play better than that defensively to win today,” said Wilcox in a postgame press conference.
The coach’s thoughts on the defense were realistic — if not uninspired, but what else is there to be said about a team that would have needed to allow no more than five points in order to win?
With hopes of postseason festivities all but dashed, the Bears will have to find something else to fight for this season. The moniker #FinishTheJob remains in effect for Cal, but there is new doubt as to which job that is referring to. Finding a new goal to strive toward will be critical going forward, and the upcoming bye week will be the best time possible to search.