The WSU offense was not able to convert chances presented by the defense and special teams, as the Cougars fell to California, 20-13.
PULLMAN — Paul Wulff had a specific point in mind.
But what he said also touched an overarching theme.
“We’re struggling trying to capitalize on opportunities when we do get them,” the Washington State coach said Saturday after the Cougars fell to California, 20-13, before 17,648 in a sun-drenched Martin Stadium.
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Wulff was referring to the WSU offense not being able to convert chances presented by the defense — which forced two turnovers — and special teams (a 33-yard punt return to the Cal 27) into touchdowns.
But he just as easily could have been talking about the Cougars’ opportunity to break a long list of losing streaks, from their 16 consecutive Pac-10 defeats, to the 18 games against FBS foes without a victory, to the current eight consecutive defeats, giving WSU a 1-9 overall record and a 0-7 Pac-10 mark.
To a man, the Cougars who trudged to the interview room talked about the crushing nature of the defeat.
Linebacker C.J. Mizell, who led one of WSU’s better defensive efforts of the season with 12 tackles, put it best.
“Every loss hurts, but this one hurts a little more because we had them by the neck and we just let off of them,” the freshman said.
After all, the Cougars scored first, which hasn’t happened since the USC defeat earlier this season. They led at halftime, which hasn’t happened in a Pac-10 game since the 2007 Apple Cup.
And they were down just a touchdown in the fourth quarter, which hasn’t happened in seemingly forever, with three chances to either take a lead or tie the game.
In the nine plays among those three chances, the Cougs lost 4 yards.
That was the story on this day. Every time the Bears opened a door, the Cougars closed the window.
“The bottom line is we didn’t make plays we needed to make,” offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said.
It started, but certainly didn’t finish, with quarterback Jeff Tuel.
The sophomore suffered through his worst complete-game passing effort of his career, completing just 9 of 25 attempts. His 92 yards in the air were the fewest he’s had all season and snapped a streak of nine consecutive games of at least 200 yards. All this against a school he torched for 354 yards last season.
Though Tuel missed some open targets, he didn’t get much help. There were at least five dropped balls and six sacks, which doesn’t count the times Tuel had to squirm out of trouble.
“Our protection today was not great,” Wulff understated. “Jeff was being pressured tremendously.”
Not that there were a lot of people open.
“Their two big corners were pressing out two outside receivers, Jared (Karstetter) and Marquess (Wilson), all game,” Wulff said. “That got to us. They did a good job messing our timing up.”
Karstetter, fourth in the Pac-10 with 4.55 catches a game, had one. Wilson, ninth in the nation with 98.33 yards a game, had 50 on four catches.
Even the Cougars’ one touchdown drive, giving them an early second-quarter 7-0 lead, included 60 yards rushing, the final 10 on Logwone’s Mitz’s third touchdown of the season.
WSU finished with 102 yards rushing — despite 39 lost on the sacks — and just 92 passing, the first time the ratio has been tilted toward the ground game since the Oregon rout last season.
Mitz had 54 yards on 11 carries and Tuel had 34 net yards, but gained 73 on 12 rushing attempts as Sturdy turned him loose for the first time this year.
“We need to utilize him more in the running game,” Wulff said. “If we’re going to try to win games, he’s going to have to do it with his legs as well, to a certain degree.”
WSU trailed just 14-13 going into the final 15 minutes.
The defense, which held Cal to 383 yards of total offense, the second fewest its yielded all season, made one stop — WSU followed with a three-and-out — and should have made another.
The Bears had a third-and-20 at their 44 with about eight minutes left. Brock Mansion hit Ross on a slant and Mizell grabbed him at the WSU 45. But the 5-foot-11 Ross dragged Mizell and most of the Cougar defense for another 10 yards and a first down.
And the Bears kept the chains moving, finally scoring with 5:24 left on Shane Vereen’s 1-yard run.
The Cougars offense was given two opportunities, though, to tie the game and came up empty.