PULLMAN – Great teams find a way to win.
The Washington State Cougars are not a great team, and they keep finding ways to lose.
The much-maligned WSU defense delivered one of its better performances in recent years Saturday, but the Cougars’ offense failed to take advantage in a 20-13 loss to California.
“We’re struggling trying to capitalize on opportunities when we do get them,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “That happened today for our offense.
“That was tough.”
The Cougars (1-9 overall, 0-7 Pacific-10 Conference) fought to a scoreless tie in the first quarter and led 10-7 at halftime at Martin Stadium.
WSU had not held an opponent scoreless in the first quarter since a Nov. 22, 2008, win over Washington, and the Cougars had not led at halftime since a Sept. 20, 2008, win over Portland State.
The WSU defense produced the game’s only two turnovers and limited the explosive Bears to 383 total yards. Cal junior Brock Mansion, making his first start after Kevin Riley went out with a season-ending knee injury last week, completed 12 of 24 passes for 171 yards and two interceptions.
The Cougars were held to season lows of 194 total yards and 92 passing yards. Quarterback Jeff Tuel was called upon to run more than usual – the Cougars finished the game with only two healthy running backs – but he was sacked six times and completed just 9 of 25 passes for 92 yards.
“He wasn’t as sharp as he’s been, that’s fair to say,” offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said.
“The defense played their tails off,” WSU running back Logwone Mitz said.
“Credit to them for four quarters.
“The offense didn’t come out in the third quarter ready to go, and that’s where the game changes.”
After the Cougars went nowhere to open the second half, California (5-4, 3-3) needed just four plays to take the lead for good.
Star receiver Marvin Jones made a sensational leaping catch for 27 yards, and one play later, the Bears gained another 27 yards on a reverse that Jeremy Ross ran into the end zone.
“We did a poor job in the third quarter coming out flat on offense and defense,” Wulff said.
“We gave up that easy score. That was the turning point.”
WSU freshman Andrew Furney, who snapped a 7-7 tie with a 51-yard field goal in the second quarter, nailed a 48-yarder late in the third quarter after junior cornerback Aire Justin’s first college interception. That accounted for all of the Cougars’ second-half scoring on a gorgeous afternoon before a crowd of 17,648 – easily the smallest in the Pac-10 this season.
Talented Cal running back Shane Vereen ran for his second touchdown of the game with 5:29 remaining after Ross had hauled in a screen pass on third-and-20 and seemingly carried half the defense the final 10 yards of a 21-yard gain.
Vereen finished with 112 yards on 25 carries.
The oft-injured Justin, a former starter making his first start this season after Daniel Simmons suffered a shoulder injury in practice Thursday, had five tackles to nearly double his previous season total of six. He also had his first sack and a 33-yard punt return that was WSU’s longest in three years.
“Aire did a great job,” Wulff said.
“It’s a hard loss,” said Justin, sporting a low Mohawk hairdo with red-dyed hair in the middle and the words “SHOW” and “TIME” carved on either side of his head. “It’s really disappointing.”
The Cougars, riding losing streaks of eight overall and 16 in the Pac-10, visit Oregon State at 1 p.m. next Saturday (FSN).
California snapped a six-game road losing skid.