Rushing to a quick lead on the road in a conference game hadn’t been a staple of Washington State football in a long time. Then again, hanging on for a decisive win against Cal hadn’t happened, either. The Cougars, until Saturday’s 44-22 victory in Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium, were Cal’s personal whipping post, losing each of their last eight tries.
But faced with the chance to start 2-1 in the Pac-12 North, the Cougars (4-2 overall) bolted to a 14-0 advantage, their first two possessions producing 92- and 85-yard scoring drives. They amassed 570 total yards, but more importantly, made enough plays at critical moments to prevail.
Connor Halliday did it on one leg.
The oft-criticized, always explosive WSU quarterback finished with 521 passing yards, going 41 of 67 — a school record in attempts and No. 2 in completions — with three touchdowns and one interception while dealing with what looked like a painful hip injury.
Leading 28-15 midway through the third quarter, he found junior college transfer Vince Mayle for a 72-yard touchdown pass. The score allowed WSU to ease to a second conference road win for the first time since 2006. Mayle caught four passes for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Halliday, and the WSU defense, received help from a Cal team that couldn’t get out of its own way early. The Golden Bears marched 65 yards on their opening possession before a blunder that set the tone for the rest of their afternoon.
Facing second-and-goal from the five, freshman quarterback Jared Goff, who finished 33 of 59 for 504 yards and two touchdowns, mistimed the exchange with running back Daniel Lasco. Lasco lunged a few steps but never gained control, and WSU defensive tackle Toni Pole recovered when the ball fell to the turf.
The Golden Bears (1-4, 0-3 conference) fumbled again inside the 10-yard line, this time at the start of the second quarter. Running back Brandon Bigelow failed to secure the ball after getting stuffed on a third-and-one. Again Pole recovered, though the ensuing offensive possession lasted one play when Cal’s defensive line smothered running back Teondray Caldwell in the end zone for a safety that cut the WSU lead to 14-2.
The win didn’t come without a few slices of drama. Halliday looked as if he would be lucky to finish the first half.
After tossing the game’s inaugural TD, a 35-yarder to Mayle, Fox Sports 1 television cameras panned to Halliday slamming his helmet as he limped to the sideline. A week removed from leaving the 55-17 Stanford loss with a hip injury, Halliday Saturday was limited in scrambling, and was off on enough throws to keep WSU from shooting to an insurmountable lead. Twice in the first half he overthrew unmarked wide receivers running toward the end zone, but still managed 277 first-half passing yards and a pair of touchdowns.
By halftime, Goff, his Air Raid counterpart, had thrown 21 of 34 for 345 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Cal pulled to 14-12 midway through the second quarter after Halliday tossed his 10th interception of the season. The Cougars scored later in the quarter when running back Marcus Mason grabbed a swing pass, shot out to the first down, then cut back inside before dashing 68 yards untouched to give WSU a 21-12 lead.
Cal grabbed a field goal before half and trailed 21-15 at intermission.
They wouldn’t get any closer because WSU’s defensive line appeared every bit the force that helped the Cougars to a 10-7 conference-opening win against USC. Defensive tackles Ioane Gauta and Xavier Cooper were in Goff’s grill on most his dropbacks. The Cougars forced five turnovers, had three sacks and held Cal, who chose to run only as an afterthought (29 attempts), to 79 yards rushing.
The win sets up an unlikely Pac-12 North showdown next week in Martin Stadium when WSU welcomes Oregon State (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12).