Marquess Wilson’s parting letter two hours before kickoff overshadowed WSU’s strange 44-36 loss to UCLA Saturday night at Martin Stadium.
The negative buzz surrounding the former receiver’s allegations of physical and verbal abuse during the Utah game’s halftime locker room confrontation, which he cited as a reason he was quitting the program, prompted Washington State AD Bill Moos to issue a defensive statement while his Cougars made one of their own, nearly overcoming a 37-7 halftime deficit against the No. 17 team in the country.
Coach Mike Leach, at the center of the storm, brushed off questions about his conduct and Wilson’s decision after his team outscored the Bruins 29-7 in the second half. UCLA sealed the victory with under two minutes remaining when the Cougars couldn’t recover an onside kick.
“I’m not going to talk about anybody who’s not here,” Leach said after WSU’s seventh consecutive loss. “I coach the guys that are here. I don’t have anything to say about the guys who aren’t here.”
But as always, he couldn’t keep quiet. On the post-game radio show, he denied any instances of his staff abusing Wilson physically.
“Clearly there was some addition by subtraction because we had our best effort of the season,” he said.
The comments marked Leach’s only statement about his former wide receiver Saturday. Regardless of the truth of the allegations, Wilson’s decision to leave clouded his NFL draft prospects. A junior, Wilson is eligible to be drafted, or he could transfer. He could play next season right away at an FCS school, or sit out a year by NCAA rule before joining an FBS program.
Back on the gridiron, the Cougars squeezed a season’s worth of incompetent special teams play into one half of football. WSU moved the ball well against coach Jim Mora’s defense, compiling 524 yards — 457 through the air.
There was just one problem. UCLA blocked four kicks — two punts and two field goals.
The game’s turning point arguably came on WSU’s opening drive. QB Jeff Tuel and Co. moved the ball to UCLA’s 25-yard line fairly easily before settling for a 42-yard field goal try.
A litany of Bruins ripped through the left side of the line before bashing theball back at PK Andrew Furney. Bruin Sheldon Price picked up the ball and returned it 68 yards for a touchdown.
Next possession, the Cougars drove the ball to UCLA’s one-yard line the before freshman wide receiver Gabe Marks drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty. The misstep forced another Furney try, though this one was from just beyond 30 yards.
After Tuel went down with an apparent collarbone injury late in the first quarter, backup Connor Halliday rallied an offense that ranked 119th in the country in scoring The Ferris High School graduate hit Dominique Williams on a six-yard slant route with 34 seconds remaining in the period to knot the game at seven.
A second quarter meltdown that followed put the Cougars in too big a hole. Aided by two fumbles, a safety and a blocked punt, UCLA ran off 30 consecutive points to take a commanding halftime lead.
The nearly 29,000 in attendance who chose to brave Saturday’s freezing temperatures then made their way to the exits. WSU dominated the second half against a Bruins team that lost its incentive, but the final stats went the Cougars’ way, illuminating how the special teams betrayed them.
The Cougars out-gained UCLA 524 to 334. The defense held the conference’s leading rusher, Johnathan Franklin, to 66 yards on 19 carries. Halliday threw for 330 yards and five touchdowns.
Even the running game — a non-existent facet for much of the season — performed in garbage minutes. Teondray Caldwell rushed 10 times for 62 yards.
Leach could nary find a position group to criticize after he labeled the loss WSU’s best effort of the 2012 season.
“That’s the hardest I’ve seen this team play, and one of the better ones I’ve seen in my career,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the effort.”
But Leach had little choice to say that, given that he wanted to give no credence to Wilson’s decision and letter having an impact on the game. Moos felt compelled to do the counterpunching with this statement emailed to media during the game:
“It is unfortunate that Marquess has chosen not to go through the weekend and have the subsequent visit with me as we had discussed last Tuesday. I was hopeful to provide additional guidance if he was willing to meet the standards that have been set by Mike Leach and his staff in their effort to establish a competitive football program at Washington State. Unfortunately, during times of coaching transitions, departures are not uncommon.
“We have procedures in place that were developed to monitor student-athlete welfare in all of our sports programs. We will continue to follow those procedures and modify them if needed.
“I believe I join many Cougars in wishing Marquess well in his future endeavors.
“WSU athletics plans no future statement at this time.”
Sunday morning, WSU president Dr. Elson Floyd issued his own statement asking the athletic department and the Pac-12 to fully review Wilson’s allegations and report findings as soon as possible.
“Together, both reports should get to the bottom of the matter,” he wrote.