Cal did everything it needed to do to pull off a big win in rainy, chilly Pullman, Wash., Saturday night.
Well, almost everything, but we’ll get to the Brandon McIlwain interception later, a matter my colleague, Jeff Faraudo, addresses at length.
But besides that one play, the game plan was excellent, and the execution of it was exceptional – with a little luck helping along the way.
It gave the Bears a chance to:
--1. Pull off an upset of a ranked team for the second straight week after knocking off then-No. 15 Washington in similar fashion 12-10 a week ago.
--2. End Washington State’s 11-game home winning streak, which nonetheless was increased to 12 with the Cougars’ 19-13 victory.
---3. Earn Cal its first road victory over top-10 team since 1969.
At the end, the Bears (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) accomplished none of those things, as Washington State (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) remained alone atop the Pac-12 North and kept alive its remote chance of gaining entry to the College Football Playoff.
But the second straight outstanding defensive showing makes you believe Cal could win at least one of its remaining three games – against USC in Los Angeles next week followed by games against Stanford and Colorado – and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2015.
Washington State coach Mike Leach is convinced.
“Cal’s been playing really good lately and as the seasons gone on,” Leach said. “I think they’ve gotten better and better.”
Certainly, the Bears’ defense is as good as anyone’s in the Pac-12. Which brings us to the game plan and the execution of it.
At this point, Cal has no big-time playmakers on offense, a shortcoming only recruiting can cure. And although redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Garbers is improving and is a running threat, he still is not a dynamic player who can carry an offense on his back. That is a shortcoming only experience can remedy.
“We’re trying to move the ball on offense and score points,” Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said. “I would love to say we’re going to go up and down and score on three- and four-play drives. That’s not us right now.”
The offense lacked a key element with wide receiver Kanawai Noa being absent from the game with an undisclosed injury. But that would not have changed the game plan significantly.
What the Bears do have now is an exceptional defense, especially against the pass, and that can keep Cal in ballgames as long as the offense does not give the game away.
The offense did what it needed to do. The Bears held the ball for 31:19, and Washington State ran only 29 offensive plays in the second half. Cal kept Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew II off the field, took time off the clock to shorten the game, allowed their defense to get sufficient rest, moved the ball consistently enough to avoid field-position catastrophes and avoided the mistake that would give the Cougars’ a cheap score.
That allowed the Cal defense to put its stamp on the game. The only touchdown Cal scored came after an Evan Weaver interception gave the Bears the ball at the Cougars’ 39-yard line.
But the Bears’ defensive excellence went beyond that one play. For the second straight year, Cal’s defenders seemed to know where Washington State wanted to go with its passes. Last year, the Bears’ defenders consistently jumped the route of Luke Falk’s first option, leading to nine sacks and a 37-3 upset of the eighth-ranked Cougars. On Saturday, Cal shut off Gardner Minshew II’s first and second options, causing him to hold the ball, and hold the ball, and hold the ball some more.
Minshew’s rhythm and timing were messed up, preventing the big plays that could doom the Bears.
In the Cougars’ final possession, though, Gardner was outstanding, leading a 69-yard scoring drive that included completions of 24 and 23 yards before he hit Easop Winston with a 10-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left.
“We let these guys off the hook,” Garbers said. "The defense played great, as always."
Even with that late score, the Cougars, who entered the game leading the Pac-12 in scoring at 40.8 points per game, were held to their lowest scoring output of the season. If you had said before the game that Cal would limit WSU to 19 points, you would like the Bears’ chances.
Certainly, Cal got some breaks. Six of its 20 first down came by way of penalty, and that wild Washington State interception and fumble looked very much like a game-changing play at the time.
With about six minutes left in the third quarter and Washington State leading 13-10, the Cougars' Willie Taylor intercepted a Garbers pass at the Cal 40-yard line. He had plenty of running room, and seemed headed for the end zone. But Garbers tackled Taylor at the 3-yard line and knocked the ball out. The ball rolled through the end zone for a touchback. Instead of Washington State scoring for a 20-10 lead, Cal had possession at its own 20. The Bears ended that drive with a game-tying field goal.
Another break occurred later, when Washington State kicker Blake Mazza missed a 30-yard field goal attempt with 3:31 left to keep the score tied.
But the mistake Cal fans will remember is McIlwain’s interception on a first-and-10 play from the Washington State 12-yard line with 7:34 left in the fourth quarter of a tie game. Skyler Thomas picked off the overthrown ball in the end zone. The question will be, why was McIlwain in the game at that point after Garbers had led the offense most of the evening, and, more to the point, why was McIlwain throwing the ball?
It was the lone black mark on the otherwise masterful game plan. It might have cost Cal a chance for an upset, though.
“Obviously, we’re frustrated,” said Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk. “We expected to win and it hurts that we didn’t.”