PULLMAN, Wash.-It took the Cal football team more than 2,400 miles, 10 weeks and five road trips, but in the end, it came down to seven yards that spelled the difference between losing to hapless Washington State and the Bears coming away with their first road win of the season.
Senior wide receiver Jeremy Ross provided an emotional charge to Cal with a 21-yard reception in the fourth quarter to spark the Bears to a 20-13 win over the Cougars.
"That was a huge play because then we went down and scored," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "That was the play of the game, right there."
With the deafening banging of lockers and the whoopings of elation in the background, Tedford called Ross up to lead the postgame cheer in the locker room. So this is what a road win sounds like.
"It was Jeremy, but everybody else, too, not giving up on the play," said Tedford, of the last seven yards of that 21-yard catch, which saw all 11 Cal players pushing forward as one to get a crucial first down. "They just continued to fight and scratch, and they must have put that pile eight or 10 yards to make that first down."
With just under 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter and the game too close for comfort at 14-13, junior quarterback Brock Mansion was sacked for a loss of 10 yards by Aire Justin. An incomplete pass to junior wideout Marvin Jones put the Bears in third-and-20. At his own 44-yard line, Mansion tossed a screen pass to Ross, who delivered one of his patented hurdles to get out to the Cougars' 40, where he was met by the entire Washington State defense.
"It was a screen play, I caught the ball, tried to make that first defender miss, and when I saw the defenders closing in, I just lowered my shoulder, tightened the ball up, and just kept driving my legs," Ross said. "With the help of my teammates, really working to push the pile, I was just focused on driving my legs as hard as I could and staying up as long as possible.
"I felt some type of momentum; I didn't know where it was coming from, but it was like a lot of pushing in a lot of different directions."
On his one-a-game hurdles, Ross just smiled and admitted that there's a bit of an over-under going on in the locker room before every game.
"They're always like, 'We going to see one today? We going to see one today? We going to see one today?' But I never know," Ross smiled. "It's just pure instinct, just whenever the defender goes low, I don't even think about it anymore. It just happens."
With a fresh set of downs, Mansion, Vereen and the Bears marched down the field and down to the Cougars' one-yard line, where Vereen powered the ball in for his 27th career rushing TD, putting Cal up 20-13. On the day, Vereen ran for 112 yards on 25 carries, putting him ninth on the Cal all-time list with 2,553 career yards.
"It was huge; we needed that," Mansion said. "That was a huge play, not only to help our defense out and give them a little breathing room, but also with the clock, because it kept going and, in the fourth quarter, with a lead, the clock's your best friend."
As the play was happening, Mansion wasted several seconds of that clock looking at the sidelines, not expecting the play to keep going and going and going.
"I looked at the sideline like three or four times, to get the play and see what we were doing, and I look to the right, and we just made a first down," Mansion said. "I was looking for the next signal, are we going to go for this, or whatever, and I keep looking back at the pile, and it's still going, it's still going, it's still going, and then, on the fourth or fifth look, then I started running to see if I could start helping to push it up."
Mansion got there two or three seconds before the whistle blew, but he helped as best he could. The two real engines for that seven-yard tractor pull were Ross and Vereen. The junior tailback was the first on the scene to help Ross out.
"I knew the play call: Jeremy would bring the ball back up the middle, and then I saw him get hit a couple times, but he was still moving his feet," Vereen said. "We had about 10 yards to go at that point, and I thought I'd go help him out. I saw him keep moving, so I hit the pile and saw what I could do. Luckily a few more guys came and we were able to get the first down.
"I found the closest Washington State guy and I hit him, just trying to drive the pile towards a first down, because we're not allowed to move the ball-carrier. That play was huge, what a great individual effort by Ross, to hold on to the ball and keep his feet moving. It kept the drive going and we ended up going down and scoring."
The Bears (5-4, 3-3 in the Pac-10) squeaked out the win in the fourth quarter on the back of Ross-who tallied 87 all-purpose yards on the day-after looking decidedly limp early in the contest.
For the first time under head coach Paul Wulff, Washington State (1-9, 0-7) held an opponent scoreless in the first quarter.
The Bears suffered from several miscues in the first quarter, which killed the momentum built during Cal's opening eight-play drive. After getting a pair of quick first downs, Mansion hard-sold a play-fake and looked for tight Anthony Miller over the middle, but overthrew him, as he did several times with several receivers in the first half, mainly due to first-start jitters.
"You don't realize how excited you get when you see that a guy's going to be wide open," Mansion smiled. "That one kind of got away from me, and then the flag to Michael Calvin (in the second quarter). But, (Calvin) made a really good effort to go get it, and he almost climbed the ladder."
On the next play, Mansion hit Jones high in his hands, but the junior saw it bounce right back out. Facing a third-and-10, Mansion was then sacked for a loss of eight. Mansion struggled a little early with overthrows, but settled in as the game went on.
"I pictured, as I was coming off, the first thing I was thinking about was Kevin (Riley) telling me to keep my front shoulder down," Mansion said.
Tedford was pleased, overall, with the performance of his junior signal-caller in his first career start, especially with his early throws downfield.
"The first longball he threw, it should be a touchdown to Marv, and the next one that he threw to Anthony Miller, that should be a touchdown," Tedford said. "I thought he came into this game with a clear conscience and a lot of confidence, and I thought he threw the ball really well. I thought he did a nice job of running the huddle, making the play calls, doing all the things. For his first start, today, I thought he did a real nice job."
After a three-and-out by the Cougars, Mansion tossed a great touch ball 50 yards to Jones, but saw it fall through his receiver's fingers. Later in that drive, Mansion seemed to hook up with Miller at the one-yard line on the throw referenced by Tedford, but the ball was ruled to have hit the ground.
"Coming into the game, we thought that their game plan would be to load the box and to make me beat them with a throw," Mansion said. "I was excited about that, because we came out throwing the ball really deep, really early. I was really pumped. I just thought that we had to land a couple of those, and I can put the guys in better positions, like Marv and for Anthony on both of those."
The Bears finally managed a touchdown, though, in the second, capping off a seven-play, 95-yard drive with a two-yard Vereen touchdown run-Cal's only score of the first half-set up by a 50-yard toss to a leaping Jones.
"He threw another great ball out there," Tedford said of Mansion. "I thought he handled himself very well for his first start."
On that drive, Mansion passed for 58 yards and rushed for 31, including a designed 28-yard scamper backed up deep in his own territory.
"We talked on the headset, and we had run that jazz play before, and I was like, 'Hey coach, I'm going to keep it because they got a guy crashing up on the line," Mansion said. "It turned into a huge play for us and kind of got our confidence up, and the sideline erupted a little bit and set up sup for another big play."
Mansion's size and speed allows him to be a true running threat, and while Tedford said that Mansion is not the fastest guy out there, a man who knows speed-Vereen-spoke highly of the fleetness of foot demonstrated by Mansion, who piled up 43 positive yards running the ball, but was hurt by two sacks and a few kneel-downs, dropping his net to 25 yards on the day.
"He was supposed to read the D-lineman and he read it perfectly," Vereen said. "I saw the D-lineman crash, and thought, 'I hope he pulls this down and takes off,' and he did and he was off to the races. He's actually pretty fast, once he gets going, it takes him a little to get going, but once he does, he's pretty fast."
But, alas, for the first time this season, the Cougars led at halftime, 10-7, necessitating a kick in the pants, emotionally, from both team leaders and the coaches.
"Coming into halftime, we knew we had to get our attitude back that we came in with," Mansion said. "We knew what we needed to do, just did our jobs and came out and played some good football in the second half."
As soon as the Bears came out after halftime, it was like a different team. Mansion matriculated the ball down the field on the very first drive of the second half, going 65 yards on four plays in 1:49. Vereen rushed for a first down on the first two plays of the series, and then, magic happened.
Mansion, with first-and-10 at his own 46, lined up under center, pump faked, and then hit Jones up top for a one-handed, three-ring-circus-highlight-reel-leading grab over stud safety Deone Bucannon for a gain of 27 yards.
"We knew we didn't take advantage of a couple opportunities; we moved the ball well, we ran the ball down their throat, we had a couple completions for first downs, but I thought we came out (of halftime) fine," Mansion said. "That was a play I couldn't see. It was a double-move, and I thought he was going to be underneath the guy, so I tried to put it in the middle of the field so he could just run into it, but he came back to the ball, and I couldn't see it. I was getting off the ground. But it was just ridiculous. The deep 50-yard one, he went up and got that one, too. He's done that a few times."
Then it was Ross's turn again, as he took a 27-yard end-around to the house to put Cal ahead, 14-10.
But, on the Bears' next possession, Mansion tossed his second interception of the game on a botched sideline pass to Vereen, which nearly hit the ground before it was picked by Aire.
"The best thing you can learn to do, as a quarterback, is that if it's a good play or a bad play, you move to the next one," Mansion said. "I was a little pissed off after that throw to Shane. It was just a terrible throw. I've got to put him in a much better position. If I could take anything back today, it would be two throws."
Mansion threw two picks on the day, the first coming on an underthrow to Calvin late in the second quarter.
All of the wide receivers had to step up because true freshman playmaker Keenan Allen injured his right knee during pregame warmups.
"Keenan tweaked his knee before the game," Tedford said. "The first route that he ran in pregame, he hurt his knee. We'll check it. They think it had the feeling of a meniscus. It was sore and it was clicking, so he couldn't go. I'm sure he'll have an MRI when we get back, they'll do some tests and whatever the tests are, typically it starts with an MRI. Meniscus (injuries) are usually not that long, but still, it's still too premature to even comment on it."
He had ice wrapped around it during the first half, and had his shoulder pads off when the team came out for the second.
"When one guy's down, the next guy has got to step up," Ross said. "I think we did that today, really focusing on making the big catches and making the big plays."
But, the rest of the receiving corps did what it could, with Jones catching four balls for 101 yards and Ross catching three passes for 45. On the day, Mansion was 12-of-24 for 171 yards.
"I think we could have done a lot more things with him in," Mansion said. "I feel like we have a really, really deep receiving corps that just stepped up. I thought J-Ross and Mike Cal did a real nice job."
Without Allen, and with the weight of six straight road losses dating back to last season weighing on the Bears, Tedford knew that, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, something had to be said. So, he gathered his entire team together, held four fingers up and started barking.
"He said, 'You hold that four up in the air, make it mean something,'" Ross said. "I think we all took that to heart: the fourth quarter is our time."
That energy led to the unified push to get that extra seven yards for Ross, and even sparked a few scuffles in the various piles and meetings between shoulder pads and chests.
"Every time we get together for the fourth quarter, people put up their four fingers," Tedford said. "I felt like it was really important to pull them all together, look at each other in the eyes and make sure we did what it took to win the football game. That was the bottom line. People stepped up, made some plays, and the defense did a great job at the end. They did a real nice job of shutting them down in the fourth quarter."
There was also the matter of the fact that the Cougars have not won a Pac-10 game since 2008.
"We just didn't want to lose, period," Ross said. "We'd seen where the game was and what we had to do, and it fired us up. We knew that we had each other, and we kept leaning on each other to make those plays happen. It's important, very important, especially this win, today, because it showed a lot about our team: We keep fighting."
In several instances, the Bears almost took that a bit too literally, getting into several shoving matches with their Washington State counterparts.
"We just wanted it so badly," Vereen said. "Not really desperate, but the desire and the heart that we needed to play with came out and we were able to pull it out."