Washington State replaced quarterback Connor Halliday with Jeff Tuel after Halliday was intercepted twice in the first quarter Saturday night. The Cougars lost to California, 31-17.
PULLMAN — For the crimson partisans looking for a silver lining in Washington State’s 31-17 loss to California, we offer — yes, a bit sheepishly — this slender morsel of perspective.
The last time a first-year Washington State football coach entertained Cal at Martin Stadium, it was Paul Wulff in the second game of 2008, and the Bears, a couple-of-touchdown favorites, won 66-3. Jahvid Best, the Cal running back, was a thoroughbred running against pasture nags, rushing for two touchdowns of 80 or more yards.
That was WSU’s worst loss in history, and it took some doing to achieve one worse, but the Cougars did it about five weeks later. It was also the first real sign of the darkness about to envelop the program.
I guess we’re saying things could be a lot worse for WSU, even though the Cougars lost a fourth straight game, and fell to 2-5 (0-4 in the Pac-12) as the first-year regime of Mike Leach continues to take on water.
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If that’s perspective, WSU fans are forgiven for rejecting it. Even after mostly unalloyed angst since that 63-point shaming, they don’t have so much scar tissue that they don’t expect better these days.
It appeared to be a good time to catch Cal, which has been flighty and has an oddly timed Big Game next Saturday against Stanford. But such circumstance isn’t enough to help the Cougars these days, because they’re still uncertain at quarterback, offensively challenged and far too ineffective in the red zone.
Once again, Leach replaced Connor Halliday with Jeff Tuel, and I’d suggest this time it ought to be permanent, or at least until Halliday can regain some of the magic that saw him throw for 494 yards on that memorable night last November against Arizona State.
Halliday threw two first-quarter interceptions, giving him five picks in his past 29 attempts when you count last week against Oregon State, and Leach subbed in senior Jeff Tuel. He was better, but still had only middling success and Cal stunted a would-be fourth-quarter WSU comeback that was looking like it might pull the Cougars within seven.
“Obviously, it’s not the ideal situation,” said Tuel of his second straight mop-up effort, “but I do what I can with it.”
It didn’t help that by halftime WSU was without two offensive starters who left with apparent concussions — receiver Marquess Wilson and freshman running back Teondray Caldwell.
Cal took a 14-3 halftime lead, quickly expanded to 21-3 on its first drive of the third quarter, and WSU played catch-up all night, futilely. It wasn’t for lack of field position.
After a third-quarter drive finally got the Cougars their first touchdown since the Oregon game Sept. 29, they pushed shortly after to the Cal 37 before turning it over on downs, and then marched to the Cal 13 before that fizzled on a missed Andrew Furney field goal.
Finally, a 29-yard burst by Cal’s C.J. Anderson with less than 11 minutes left gave the Bears a 31-10 lead, a hill too steep for the fits-and-starts Cougars.
A seemingly innocent Cal series as the first half closed is reflective of WSU’s offensive impotence. The Bears, with that 14-3 lead, had only 26 seconds left at their 32, but they were still in hurry-up mode, trying (as it turned out, unsuccessfully) to put up more points, throwing caution to the wind about a turnover, as if to say: Meh.
On defense, the Cougars never really got the necessary pressure on Cal quarterback Zach Maynard, who had been sacked a nation-leading 28 times this year, because the Bears ran wild (318 yards worth), and when Maynard did throw, he did it quickly.
It was nearing midnight when Leach, who had said early in the week some of his seniors had an “empty-corpse quality” regarding leadership, rendered a judgment on the night.
“I thought we got better this week,” he said. “Nobody’s pleased with the result. I thought we played hard, I was proud of how we wanted to be out there to battle.
“(But) we don’t need to be satisfied with coming close. We slice it so thin, as far as margin for error. We left meat scraps all over the table. We had opportunities to win the game, no question about it.”
So it wasn’t empty corpses for WSU, but far from fulfilling, either. Just another loss for a program where it continues to happen with regularity.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org