By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, Calif. — Well, we knew coming in that previously ranked Washington State and Cal are pretty good football teams except when they aren’t.
The Cougs look bad when they can’t stop anybody, and when the Bears struggle they can’t score. Those two storylines grew old in Pullman and Berkeley with all the losing. Since late September when WSU and Cal were both undefeated and nationally ranked, the two clubs combined for a 1-8 record.
So Saturday’s matchup offered redemption for one of the two teams, and more of the same for the other.
Who gained the upper hand?
Cal did, winning 33-20, as they welcomed back injured, offensive starters Michael Saffell, Kekoa Crawford and Devon Modster, three big reasons the Bears put up a season-best 33 points, one game after they were shutout in Salt Lake City.
“It just shows a lot of grit, coming off of a four-game losing streak,” said Modster, who threw for three scores and ran for another. “Our spirits didn’t die. We came out to work every day, and I think it showed tonight.”
The Bears scored just 24 points total in their previous three losses, but needed all of 45 seconds to find the end zone on Saturday night. Jaylinn Hawkins picked off Anthony Gordon’s first pass attempt of the game, and Christopher Brown Jr. covered 27 yards on a touchdown run one play later.
Any illusions that Cal was going to erase all its ills immediately were wiped out on the extra-point attempt when WSU’s George Hicks III scooped up a blocked kick and raced the length of the field for two points for the Cougars.
When is a touchdown not worth seven points on the scoreboard? In this case, when the Bears’ faulty place-kicking game gets involved. In that case, seven points is effectively reduced to four.
Defensively, the Bears were on point from the start, not only with Hawkins interception, but by getting off the field in a timely matter on Washington State’s next two possessions. But after tight end Gavin Reinwald fumbled trying to get extra yardage after a catch, WSU had a short field, and drew within a point on Drew Mazza’s 30-yard field goal.
Giving away points to a normally prolific WSU offense could have spelled disaster. Trailing only 6-5 after a lackluster beginning may have been the Cougars signal to bury Cal offensively, but it wasn’t. WSU committed too many penalties (10), couldn’t run the ball (16 yards on just 14 attempts) and didn’t do enough in the pass game despite racking up 407 yards passing on Gordon’s 58 pass attempts.
Instead, Cal limited WSU’s receivers after the catch, came up with Hawkins’ pick and a fumble recovery, along with a key stop early in the fourth quarter that preserved Cal’s 20-14 lead.
Meanwhile, the Bears took after halftime, as the Cougs imploded, building on their 13-11 lead at the break with a couple of big plays, most significantly, Makai Polk’s 52-yard catch-and-run that put Cal up 26-14 with 6:15 remaining. Polk, the freshman from Richmond, had just three catches all season prior to his touchdown, a moment of brilliance that saw Modster recognize the defense pre-snap, then have Polk take advantage after catching a simple screen pass.
“They were (in) cover zero and I knew it was going to be a big gain, but I didn’t know if it was going to be a touchdown or not,” Modster recalled. “But right when I threw it I saw a huge hole and Makai just did all the rest.”
The Bears are back in the postseason mix if they can gain at least one more win in their final three games. USC comes to Berkeley on Saturday, then the Bears visit Stanford. Both teams have been vulnerable at points this season, and Cal could benefit greatly if that resurfaces for either opponent. Bringing to an end the nine consecutive losses to Stanford probably is especially enticing to the Bears.