Note: Logistical and technical problems prevented publishing Howie Stalwick’s column Saturday following Washington State’s near-upset of Auburn in Alabama. Reading it Sunday morning is almost as good.
AUBURN, Ala. — Almost two years have passed since Washington State athletic director Bill Moos handed over the Cougars football program to Mike Leach and told him, “Fix this thing.”
Moos gave Leach no time table, though the AD – a WSU gridiron hero in his day – was kind enough to suggest a bowl game might be in the offing in the first year.
Nine losses later, Moos acknowledged a bowl might have been a tad too much to expect in 2012. After all, Leach found most of the returning Cougars so wanting, he played 17 freshmen last year.
Leach won’t play nearly as many freshmen this year. However, when the Cougars kicked off the 2013 season on a muggy Saturday night at Auburn, Leach started eight sophomores, one true freshman and 12 players with zero or one year of experience at the four-year college level.
Throw in a 2,000-mile road trip and a raucous enemy crowd of 85,000, and WSU’s 31-24 loss to Auburn can be seen as progress. An even greater sign of progress is the fact that no one in crimson seemed remotely satisfied with the loss.
“I felt like we let one get away,” linebacker Darryl Monroe said.
“We should have won that game,” wide receiver Gabe Marks said. “They weren’t better than us.”
“I feel like nine out of 10 times, they wouldn’t beat us,” safety Deone Bucannon said.
That is brave talk, coming from a team that has made losing a way of life for the past decade. Consider, however, that WSU beat the Tigers soundly across the board in nearly all statistics except – you guessed it – turnovers. And, of course, rushing.
This is, after all, a team whose coach regards the forward pass as one of man’s greatest creations. And yet, on a night when Connor Halladay threw the ball 65 times – one less than Drew Bledsoe’s school record – it is noteworthy that the Cougars also ran the ball 23 times for 120 yards and two of the team’s three touchdowns.
“That running game was something very, very special,” Halladay said.
Unfortunately, Halladay’s passing game was something very, very inconsistent. He completed 35 passes for 344 of WSU’s 464 total yards, but he also offset his one touchdown pass with three interceptions.
For all his talent – and it is considerable – Halladay continues to force passes into neighborhoods that no good football should enter. The junior did show an increased willingness to settle for the short, safe passes that are integral to Leach’s offensive scheme, but he still demonstrated a tendency to rely on his strong right arm more than necessary – or, more importantly, more than one should when trying to win a close football game.
“It’s frustrating because it’s on my shoulders, turning the ball over,” Halladay said.
Halladay is the only non-freshman quarterback on the roster, so his importance to a pass-happy team cannot be overstated. It also cannot be overstated how scary it is to Cougars diehards that Halladay has thrown the same number of interceptions as touchdowns the past two seasons (16).
Still, Halladay and his teammates had much to be encouraged about Saturday, despite losing for the 10th times in 13 tries since Leach arrived on the Palouse.
Foremost, the effort level was such that even the ever-demanding Leach was satisfied.
“I’m really proud of the effort,” he said. “I thought we had great effort.”
Leach also had good things to say about the defense, although Auburn piled up 396 yards. Only 99 of those yards came via the arm of much-heralded junior college transfer Nick Marshall, who did little to impress the Cougars – particularly the outspoken Halladay.
“They ran the ball real, real, real well,” Halladay said. “If they could find a quarterback, they’d be a top five team in the nation. They just don’t have anyone who can throw it.”
The Cougars definitely have someone who can throw it. They just need Halladay to be more selective when deciding which team should be on the receiving end of his throws.
Elsewhere, WSU benefited from a strong effort by its much-maligned offensive line. The receivers were as good as advertised – 10 players caught balls, including six on the scoring drive that opened the game.
On defense, the hard-hitting Bucannon stapled a few Tigers to the turf while leading everyone with 14 tackles. Twelve of those tackles were solo acts, and he also recorded a forced fumble and a recovered fumble.
The Cougars kept the athletic Marshall in check, but they did give up a 75-yard touchdown run and a 100-yard kickoff return for another touchdown. Not coincidentally, they also gave up the lead three times.
Leach said the Tigers are “way better than last year,” but they certainly don’t possess the talent of 24th-ranked USC. The Cougars open Pac-12 play at USC next Saturday, and they can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that doomed them against the Tigers.
“We definitely could have beat them,” Bucannon said. “We don’t believe in moral victories.”