After a highly-disappointing 1-4 start to the 2012 season, the Bears entered a stretch of must-win games if the team were to get on track for a potential bowl birth this season. Tonight's game in Pullman against arguably the worst team in the Pac 12 was at the top of the list in imperative wins.
With a dominant 31-17 victory over the Cougars, the Bears held up their end of the deal and seem to be putting things together with their second straight solid victory in the Palouse for their eighth straight win over WSU to run their record to 3-4 overall and 2-2 in Pac 12 play.
"It always felt like we have been better than what we've been showing," said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. "In my heart I felt like this team was capable of things. This week we were better about doing our job and our assignment. I noticed some guys getting used to playing next to each other."
The Bears got on the board first, taking quick advantage of a Michael Lowe interception at the Cal 25, as quarterback Zach Maynard hit receiver Keenan Allen with a quick 5-yard slant that Allen caught in stride, shaking a trio of would-be tacklers on the way to a 69-yard touchdown play as the Bears took a 7-0 lead over the Vince D'Amato conversion.
Allen hauled in 11 catches on the night for 166 yards and moved into second place in all-time receptions for the Bears with 196, surpassing Demeane Douglass with his last reception, while only trailing all-time leader Geoff McArthur with 202.
"Keenan had a huge game," said Tedford. "He's a go-to guy."
After a 2nd quarter Cougar field goal, the Bears struck again, driving 75 yards in eight plays, culminated by a 4-yard C.J. Anderson td run up the middle for a 14-3 lead that the Bears would take into halftime.
Anderson went over 100 yards for the second straight game, rushing for 112 yards on just 15 carries.
The Bears wasted no time expanding their lead, driving 71 yards in nine plays to go up 21-3, with Maynard punching it in on a 1-yard sneak for the score.
Maynard's play was uneven on the evening, with two tipped ball interceptions and 11 of his first 12 completions connecting to Allen in his 14-for-23, 189 yard performance, passing for one touchdown while running for another.
The Bears were finally able to take advantage of Maynard's rushing ability, however, with the senior qb garnering a season-high 78 yards on 10 rushes in the victory.
Maynard combine with Anderson, senior Isi Sofele (73 yards on 14 carries) and soph Brendan Bigelow (59 yards on eight carries) for a season-high 318 rushing yards on the evening.
"We have one of the best running back groups in the country no matter who's out there," said Anderson."
The Cougars finally put the ball in the end zone with 6:42 left in the 3rd quarter with a 9-play, 71 yard drive culminating in an 8-yard Jeff Teul to Brett Bartalone reception to close the gap to 21-10.
It was as close as the Cougars would get the rest of the night, as the Bears came right back with a 40-yard drive to the WSU 35, followed by a career-best 52-yard field goal for the junior kicker, who after a rough start to the season has now converted six straight field goal attempts as the Bears took a 24-10 lead.
After trading posssions, the Bears were off and running again, moving 74 yards in seven plays, with Anderson bursting up the middle for a 29-yard touchdown with 10:27 remaining the game as the Bears went ahead 31-10.
Even though Tuel managed 30 completions for 320 yards and three touchdowns for the game after relieving an ineffective Conner Haliday, many of the drives were extended by questionable penalities called on the aggressive Bear defense, as the Cougars were forced to throw constantly in an attempt to close the widening Cal lead.
The Cougars would put up one last score with seven minutes left in the game on a second Tuel to Bartalone connection from six yards out for the final 31-17 margin.
There were several heartening takeaways from the Bear victory.
Even though the Cougars are in rebuilding mode under first-year head coach Mike Leach, Pullman has never been a particularly easy venue for the Bears to win, especially when struggling to find their rhythm.
The Bears have always been at their best while imposing their will with a strong running game and not forcing Maynard into 3rd-and-long passing situations.
With their 318 rushing yards, the pressure was off of Maynard, who suffered no sacks for the first time this season.
The defense seems to have hit their stride, with young players like Kameron Jackson, Avery Sebastian and Nathan Broussard taking advantage of their new-found playing opportunities to make big plays in the Bears last two victories.
Suddenly next week's unusual October Big Game vs. Stanford at Memorial Stadium looks much more winnable, with much at stake as the Bears look to even their record at 4-4 while pushing to 2-0 in the Pac 12 North.
"It's a tremendous testament to them," said Tedford. "I still believe in them, and I knew we could do some good things. It was a great team effort."