SEATTLE — The enigma that is the 2009 Cal football team closed out the regular season in fitting fashion Saturday night. Coming off their best performance of the season in a Big Game win over Stanford, the Bears turned in their worst game of the year in a 42-10 loss at Washington in front of 62,334 at Husky Stadium.
Hoping for a victory that would have put them in a tie for second place in the Pac-10 and a possible berth in the Sun Bowl, Cal (8-4, 5-4 Pac-10) instead ends the season in a tie for fifth and will play in either the Emerald Bowl on Dec. 26 at AT&T Park or the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 23.
The Bears will learn of their bowl fate today.
"We may have been overlooking Washington a little bit," said Cal tailback Shane Vereen, who rushed for 92 yards on 16 carries. "That's where we were wrong. I think a lot of us were more worried about the bowl game than Washington, and it bit us in the butt."
After dropping their first two Pac-10 games, the Bears rebounded to win five of their next six, including victories over ranked teams in each of the previous two contests. Cal was coming off a 34-28 victory over then-No. 14 Stanford, which entered the game playing as well as any team in the country.
But Cal was thoroughly dismantled in every way possible against the Huskies (5-7, 4-5), who had nothing to play for besides sending their seniors off on a high note in their final home game.
After consecutive wins against Arizona and Stanford, it looked as though the Bears might finally be playing the way many observers expected when they opened the season as the 12th-ranked team in the country. The Bears appeared to be grossly overrated after they lost to Oregon and USC by a combined score of 72-6, but the strong second half of the season started to give those preseason ratings some validation. Throw in a 31-14 home loss to Oregon State and Saturday's outcome, and Cal appears to be as big a mystery as it was at the beginning of the conference season.
"It was a roller coaster," Cal safety Sean Cattouse said. "We've had peaks and valleys. To end it like this is highly frustrating. By no means did we feel we should have been beat today. But we have one more. We're going to respond like we always have. We're going to get back to work. All we can do is look to the future."
The Huskies clearly have improved from last year's team that lost to Cal 48-7 and finished the season 0-12. Washington entered Saturday with wins over USC and Arizona and four losses by a touchdown or less. Still, the Bears appeared to be playing at a high level in their past two games and at the very least figured to be competitive with Washington.
Cal's defense, inconsistent for much of the season, looked as though it had finally put things together after consecutive standout performances against Arizona and Stanford. But led by dynamic quarterback Jake Locker, Washington shredded the Bears for 463 yards. Locker, a junior who may have played his final game at Washington if he declares early for the NFL draft, was 19-for-23 for 248 yards and three touchdowns. He added 77 yards and two more scores on the ground.
Washington receiver Jermaine Kearse consistently got open and caught seven passes for 147 yards. Running back Chris Polk had 94 yards rushing and a touchdown.
"I'm not sure if we were ready to play," Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. "I think we were in position to make some plays. We just didn't make plays. Obviously they came out fired up and ready to go. Maybe our energy level wasn't quite where it should be."
Cal got off to a strong offensively, taking the opening kick and driving 53 yards on 10 plays with Riley connecting on 3 of 4 passes for 47 yards. But Vince D'Amato missed a 42-yard field goal attempt.
It took Washington just four plays to score on its first possession, with Locker finding Kearse on a 40-yard scoring pass. The Bears drove deep into Huskies territory again on their next possession but had to settle for D'Amato's 29-yard field goal.
"Our offense and defense feed off each other," Riley said. "When we score touchdowns early, our defense plays better. We really do feed off each other, and we just didn't do a good job today."
The Bears had hoped to win Saturday and in a bowl game to finish with a 10-win season. Now, they're left attempting to figure out why they couldn't sustain what they had built against Arizona and Stanford.
"Obviously, it's not how we expected to play," Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed said. "It's real frustrating. Our goal was to turn the season around and try to get to 10 wins. That's not a possibility now. We're going to go back to work and start focusing on our bowl game."