Watching a Washington State football game is very much a ride on the emotional spectrum of sports fandom. There are moments of pure bliss. The highest of highs that make Cougar fans think WSU is on the verge of becoming an unstoppable super team. Then there are the lows. The impossibly bad plays that leave everyone wondering what the heck just happened.
The roller coaster of emotions was running at top speed in WSU's game against California and unfortunately for the Cougars, there was more bad than good. The result was a 34-28 loss as WSU dropped to 2-2 on the season and 0-1 in Pac-12 play.
The game could be summed up by one play. On a 2nd-and-16 in the fourth quarter, Kache Palacio sacked Jared Goff. Goff fumbled and the ball went bounding back toward the Cal end zone. There were ample opportunities for WSU to scoop and score or at least recover the ball deep in Cal territory. It didn't happen. On the very next play -- a third-and-dang-36 -- this happened.
Special teams -- or special teams coaching depending on how you look at it -- proved to be the deciding factor on Saturday. Unlike last season, the Bears didn't burn WSU with long kick returns, but Cal still had the advantage on special teams. The first swing play came came early in the third quarter with WSU leading 21-13 and facing a 4th-and-1 from their 49-yard line. The Cougars could have put the ball in Gerard Wicks' hands or let Luke Falk throw. Instead, they opted to run a fake punt up the middle. Predictably it ended poorly. But the Cougars didn't just fail to convert, they fumbled and gifted Cal a special teams touchdown.
That proved to be just the first of two incredibly costly special teams miscues. The next came when Cal recovered a surprise onside kick then promptly drove for six to take the lead for the first time. WSU couldn't have been caught more off guard by the onside kick and set Cal up with a short field.
In a game where WSU likely needed to avoid the colossal mistakes to win, the special teams essentially gift wrapped Cal 14 points.
There were issues on offense or defense too, but both sides of the ball also did plenty of good things. Falk continued to have moments of good and moments of not so good. He held the ball too long at times, then delivered perfect throws at others.
The defense had a similar day. Against a high-powered Cal offense, the Cougar defense held strong at times. They were better in the trenches and managed to force a couple of turnovers. There were mistakes of course and at times Goff just beat them with brilliance. The defense was seemingly half-a-step short a dozen of times. They just flat out missed too many tackles at others in another game that shows obvious progress, but is still not quite good enough.
The Cougars are much closer to winning these types of games. They showed that again. But, they also showed they are still a long way from not losing these type of games.