The Cougars can't overcome a 28-3 deficit just 14 minutes into the game.

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Standing in a tunnel under ancient Memorial Stadium, Paul Wulff was talking once again about time.

But this was different.

Wulff wasn’t talking about the time the program needs before it can avoid defeats like the 49-17 drubbing the California Golden Bears pinned on Washington State. That is ground he has covered often in the 22 months he has been coach.

No, this time he was talking about how short a time it took Saturday for the Cougars to fall behind by more than three touchdowns.

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“We just put ourselves in a damn hole,” Wulff said.

And he was also talking about the time quarterback Jeff Tuel had to throw and, when he got it, how well the freshman used it.

“What he did do — what was the big growth today — was he trusted his protection more, unlike the last few weeks,” Wulff said. “When he trusted it, he was able to step up in the pocket and make some big throws.”

Big throws, yes, but ultimately immaterial. That’s because Washington State’s fifth consecutive Pac-10 loss was ensured in near-record time.

The Bears struck for four first-quarter touchdowns, three of them touchdown passes from oft-criticized quarterback Kevin Riley.

Put into a 28-3 chasm in the first 14 minutes, WSU spent the next 46 trying to claw out.

By the time the young Cougars (1-6 overall, 0-5 in Pac-10 play) settled down — Cal had 178 of its 559 yards of total offense and 130 return yards in that 14-minute span — the hole was too deep.

The closest the Cougars got after that was 35-17 just before half.

“I’m just disappointed by the way we responded to some of the situations,” said co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball. “We got on our heels, which happens with a young football team, and we just didn’t respond very well.”

For once this year, the offense did, led by Tuel.

He was 28 of 42 passing for 354 yards, the second-most ever for a Washington State freshman. The most was Drew Bledsoe’s 385 against Arizona in 1990.

With guard Zack Williams and B.J. Guerra returning from leg injuries — Williams started and Guerra played from the second series on — the WSU offense put on its best showing against a Pac-10 school in Wulff’s tenure.

And it all started up front.

“That’s a well-known fact in football,” said freshman Gino Simone from Skyline High in Sammamish, who caught his first collegiate touchdown pass, a 19-yard strike from Tuel in the second quarter. “When they give us time to work, we do good things.”

Tuel threw for two touchdowns, led WSU on five drives of more than 50 yards and didn’t have a turnover.

“I was able to step up in the pocket and deliver a few times,” said Tuel, who had a large group of family and friends in attendance.

But all the yardage did was keep Cal (5-2, 2-2) within shouting distance — and that’s all the WSU defense did with Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen and the rest of the Bears’ offense most of the day.

Best and Vereen split 26 carries, with Best exploding for 159 yards — 61 coming on a quick hitter up the middle early in the second quarter. The junior also scored Cal’s first touchdown — on a 27-yard pass from Riley less than a minute in.

“That back is good, goodness gracious,” Ball said. “We’re not the only one he’s gashed all year.”

Riley was good as well. The junior quarterback was 12 of 18 for 229 yards and three touchdowns.

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