PULLMAN, Wash. -- The tipping point came late in the first half Saturday, with Cal leading by 25 points and quarterback Kevin Riley looking desperately for a running back to whom he might hand the football.
It was a broken play, the first hint of weakness from a team that had sprung Jahvid Best for an 80-yard touchdown run on the first snap from scrimmage. But it was a false negative.
Riley decided to run for it, his body language suggesting he was perfectly willing to defer to the first Washington State defender who threatened to invade his personal space. Turns out the only thing that stopped Riley was the end zone.
"It was just a call at the line," Riley said. "The running backs didn't hear me. I was surprised no one caught me."
Riley's romp gave Cal a 35-3 lead. But it changed the perception of what would become a 66-3 walkover. This wasn't just a case of Cal asserting its greatness, though it marked the third-highest point total in school history. This was a collaborative effort between a talented team at the top of its arc, and a lesser team popping springs and blowing gaskets.
That isn't a good thing if you're searching for deeper meaning. But if you're a sucker for entertainment, happy birthday to you.
There was plenty of that, from Best's first carry to his last — an 86-yard run on Cal's second snap of the second half. There was Shane Vereen's pin-balling 39-yard touchdown run, not to be confused with Zack Follett's 65-yard return of a blocked field goal attempt.
Syd'Quan Thompson intercepted two passes, returning one 90 yards — not to the House, but to the Washington State 5-yard line, where he dropped mainly from exhaustion. Best finished the job on the next play, taking a direct snap and burrowing into the end zone.
Those were the highlights. But it seemed like every play, at least in the first half, resulted in some kind of resounding triumph or another for the Bears. The second half? That was played because, well, no satisfactory explanation was ever offered.
The point is, we didn't discover anything out about Cal, and Cal's players and coaches didn't discover anything about themselves, that isn't apparent whenever they practice 7-on-7 without pads. So while it was a fun experience, it wasn't exactly revelatory.
"You kind of get the feeling, did we just get lucky, or are we that good?" center Alex Mack said.
Best made it look preposterously easy on the game's first offensive play. He covered 80 yards in 11 seconds, and that included the time it took to juke Washington State's last-chance defender into a lock-kneed pylon.
"I just said, 'It's going to be a long day for them' " Follett said.
On Best's 86-yarder, he was a distant spec on the horizon while Mack was still wrestling with his man at the point of attack.
"I look up and see him 60 yards down the field," Mack said. "I'm like, 'All the way!' " There was levity to be had, but the urge to derive inner peace from a nine-touchdown victory was being suppressed long before the Bears concluded their chanting, locker-banging postgame ritual.
"It's all about maturity," linebacker Worrell Williams said. "Coach (Jeff Tedford) came in at half(time) and said, 'How mature are we going to be?' " Pretty mature, if you listen to Mack.
"We need to learn from this game," he said, "because it's not always going to be two plays and a touchdown. It's going to be 16 plays and a touchdown." Starting, well, maybe not next weekend at Maryland, which lost Saturday to Middle Tennessee. Possibly the following week against Colorado State. Definitely the week after that against Arizona State.
At some point, opponents hit with an 80-yard touchdown run will start hitting back. Interceptions will stop being hand-delivered by the four-pack. And broken plays will stay broken.
"In the locker room," Riley said, "(offensive tackle Mitchell) Schwartz came up to me and said, 'Did we play good today?' I said, 'We did, but "... ' "
Soon enough they'll discover how good their version of good really is.
Contact Gary Peterson at email@example.com.