Two weeks ago, Cal punter Nick Harris was heralded as a Heisman Trophy candidate. This week, after failing to get off three kicks, he’s just another problem for head coach Tom Holmoe to worry about.
Three mistakes on the punting squad and a delayed touchdown lead to 18 Washington State points in a 21-17 Cougar victory, their first Pac-10 road win since 1997. The Bears are now the only team to lose a conference game to Washington State since that season, and they’ve done it twice.
“I’ve had worse feelings than this, but not much,” Holmoe said after the game. “I feel for the Cal fans right now, because we’re not giving them what they want. My biggest job right now is keeping the players strong and keeping their heads up.”
As usual, the Bear defense played a stout game, giving up just 279 total yards and holding the Cougar running game under 100 yards on the day. But with Washington State touchdown drives starting at the Cal 18 and 24 yard-lines, not to mention another drive that began on the Cal 20 and ended in a Cougar field goal, the offense and special teams didn’t give defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich’s boys much breathing room.
Cal took the opening kickoff and promptly failed to produce a first down, summoning Harris onto the field to save them from themselves as he has done many times this season. But the snap was low, and Harris had to eat the ball and take a 12-yard loss, giving the Cougars the ball at the Cal 20. The defense stiffened, as usual, and Washington State had to settle for a short field goal.
“We know we’re the backbone of this team and we have to carry this team,” said linebacker Chris Ball, who had a sack and two tackles for loss in the game. “It’s just not good enough right now. We have to come out and shut teams out, because if they don’t score they can’t win.”
Cal again couldn’t gain 10 yards in three plays on their next possession, and Harris came onto the field again. He got this kick off, and Cougar return man Collin Henderson fumbled the ball away to Cal’s James Bethea.
The good fortune brought the Bear offense to life, and quarterback Kyle Boller took the team 29 yards to pay dirt, hitting freshman wideout Chase Lyman, who is fast becoming Boller’s favorite target, in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown and a 7-3 Cal lead.
Sophomore cornerback LaShaun Ward was thrown out of the game near the end of the first quarter, after he punched an opposing player long after the whistle.
“That put us in a huge bind, especially with Jameel (Powell) out,” Holmoe said. “You have to play as a team, and you can’t have guys taking things into their own hands.”
With Ward dismissed and fourth cornerback Powell out with an injury, the Bears were left facing the Cougars’ spread passing attack, which usually employed four or five wideouts, with return specialist James Bethea and safety Bert Watts covering receivers one-on-one. Only constant pressure by defensive end Andre Carter and blitzing linebackers kept Cougar signal-caller Jason Gesser from picking apart the Cal secondary.
Watts and Bethea played well considering their lack of experience, but Gesser victimized starting cornerback Harold Pearson several times, hitting 6-3 wideout Milton Wynn for several big gains on jump balls over Pearson. Wynn ended up with 125 receiving yards for the game.
The Cougars put together their longest scoring drive of the day bridging the first and second quarters. They mixed the run and pass to drive 68 yards to the Cal 13 before two straight offensive holding calls killed the drive. Kicker Anousith Wilaikul kicked his second field goal of the game to narrow the Cal lead to one with 11:42 left in the half.
The following possession was yet another three-and-out for the Bears, and Harris was again called upon to get the team out of their own end. But in what Holmoe termed “a freak occurrence,” Harris whiffed on the punt.
“I was spinning the ball to get the laces on top, and it spun right out of my hands,” Harris said after the game. “That has never happened to me before. The punt team definitely lost the game today. You just can’t win when that kind of thing happens.”
Adam Hawkins recovered the ball for the Cougars on the Cal 18, and the Bear defense found itself with its back to the wall once again. Four plays later, running back Dave Minnich took a draw six yards into the end zone.
The visit coaches decided to go for a two-point conversion, hoping to extend their lead to seven points. Gesser threw a nice fade pass to the right corner of the end zone, and receiver Marcus Williams outjumped Pearson for the ball.
The next drive brought hope to the Cal fans, as the Bears drove 65 yards for the tying touchdown. Other than one six-yard pass to Charon Arnold, all yards came on the ground, as tailbacks Joe Igber and Joe Echema combined to run for 53 yards. Boller snuck outside on a bootleg from six yards out for the touchdown, leaping past two defenders to sneak inside the left sideline into the end zone.
The game was tied 14-14 at halftime.
Cal’s defense came out of the locker room fired up, and drove the Cougars back to their own nine yard-line with a sack by blitzing linebacker Matt Nixon.
But after forcing a Washington State punt and driving down the field for a goal-to-go series from the two yard-line, the Bears settled for a Mark Jensen 20-yard field goal and a 17-14 lead.
With a quarter and a half left, the Bears seemed to have the game in hand. Their offense was finally clicking, and the defense was regularly stuffing the Cougars. But then Cal’s punting team came back on the field.
The snap was fine, and Harris had a firm grip on the ball. Unfortunately for the Bears, a lineman missed his assignment, leaving backup free safety Erik Coleman free. He smothered Harris and the ball, and Hawkins picked up the ball and returned it to the Cal 24, where Harris dragged him down by the facemask, giving the Cougars the ball at the 12.
“Our punting game was a big disappointment today,” Holmoe said. “Those are two things that don’t happen to us (the Harris drop and the blocked punt).”
Facing a third down on the 10, Washington State’s Gesser tossed a pass to Williams, who was double-covered. Williams caught the ball, then it came out as he hit the ground. The side judge called it an incompletion, and both teams returned to their huddles. A Washington State player was hurt on the play, and as medical staff attended to him on the field, the officials huddled in the end zone. After several minutes, the call was overturned and the Cougars were awarded a touchdown. The call brought a chant of “Referees suck!” from the Cal faithful, but it made no difference. The point-after was good, and the Cougars had a four-point lead.
“The back judge overruled the side judge and said he caught the ball,” Holmoe said. “There’s nothing we can do about it. I can’t explain the long delay, but I’m sure it was a tough call. ”
Echema brought the ensuing kickoff back to the Washington State 33, and Igber scored an apparent touchdown on a draw play. But a holding call brought the ball back, drawing even more creative chants from the crowd.
Holmoe declined to try a 50-yard field goal, and Boller overthrew Lyman on fourth down to turn the ball over to the Cougars.
After getting the ball back on their own 35, the Bears once again got the home crowd’s hopes up by driving 47 yards for a first down on the Cougar 11. But Igber lost three and Echema gained two on running plays, bringing up a desperate third-and-11 to go. Boller scrambled and slipped down for no gain, bringing up fourth down with less than three minutes remaining in the game. Holmoe decided to go for the touchdown, but the offensive line, which lost left tackle Langston Walker to a leg injury earlier in the drive, let two players through to pressure Boller, who tossed a pass to no one as he fell.
Boller completed just 11 of his 31 passes for 89 yards for the game, and seems to have regressed from the solid play of the season opener against Utah to the inaccuracies of last season, when he completed just 38.6 percent of his passes.
The running game has improved in the last two games, and the Bears gained 181 yards on the ground, but Boller knows he’s the key to the offense.
“I just couldn’t hook up with my receivers today,” Boller said. “If you can’t do that, it’s hard to win football games.”