PULLMAN – Another game has been played. Another loss has been suffered. Another home crowd has been disappointed. On and on it goes, and nobody knows when the anguish will end for the Washington State football program and its not-so-merry band of followers.
Mike Leach was supposed to have this mess cleaned up by now. That’s what he was hired to do. That’s why he’s being paid almost five times what his predecessor made.
The result? In year No. 3 of the Leach Diaries, the Cougars are 2-6, 1-4 in the Pac-12. During Paul Wulff’s swan song in 2011, the Cougars finished 4-8 and 2-7 in the Pac-12. The Cougars are anything but certain to match the 2011 squad’s record, and let’s not forget that Leach’s 2012 team went 3-9 and 1-8 before posting lukewarm marks of 6-7 and 4-5 a year ago.
Saturday, the Cougars lost 59-37 to 15th-ranked Arizona, and the final score flatters the Cougars. They trailed 31-0 midway through the second quarter. When they scored 16 unanswered points leading into halftime, they rode that momentum into the ground by being outscored 21-0 in the third quarter.
The Cougars had a bye week to lick their wounds and study up on Arizona. Saturday’s game was a sellout on Dad’s Weekend at Martin Stadium. The Wildcats, also coming off a bye, suffered their first loss in the previous game. Perhaps most encouraging of all for Washington State was the fact that Arizona has one of the worst pass defenses in the nation. The Cougars, as you may have heard, like to throw the ball around from time to time (read: Virtually every single time).
In the end, none of it mattered. WSU’s young secondary gave up five touchdown passes against Arizona’s redshirt freshman quarterback. For bonus points, a true freshman cornerback – forced to play substantial minutes due to another player’s injury – picked off one of two interceptions thrown by Connor Halliday.
Halliday had another monster game – 489 yards and four touchdowns via airmail – but the Cougars never came close to making this a competitive game. Thousands of the 32,952 fans departed at halftime, and plenty more were gone by the end of the third quarter.
Gotta beat that Pullman gridlock.
Hard to blame the paying public for wanting to get an early start on beverage detail Saturday. In the first half alone, the Cougars erased a touchdown and a long kickoff return due to penalties and missed an extra point. Don’t get us started on Arizona’s 81-yard return barely a minute into the game. In the second half, the Cougars gave up their third kickoff return for a touchdown in the past three games.
Leach already got rid of (not-so) special teams coach Eric Russell, and the natives have been calling for the head of defensive coordinator Mike Breske all season. Such complaints are inevitable when a defense gives up 59 points . . . and it’s not even a season high. Let’s not forget that 60-59 loss – basketball, anyone? – to California a few weeks back.
Everyone knew things could get dicey in the Palouse this year with a young secondary and offensive line. However, the O-line has been better than could be reasonably expected; Halliday is challenging the national records for passing yards and touchdown passes in a season; WSU boasts some of the best receiving depth and talent in the nation; and the athleticism in the secondary appears to be the best in years.
Still, it’s not good enough. Not even close. The Pac-12 is big-boy football, and the Coug Kids are getting bullied. The spotty play of veterans in the defensive front seven has not helped matters. As for the kick-return teams … good grief. It’s a toss-up whether the angles of pursuit are worse than the tackling, or vice versa.
On the night Arizona became bowl eligible, the Cougars kicked off the second half of the season by moving within one loss of bowl elimination. As an added bonus, the Cougars must win their remaining five games plus a bowl game to avoid their eighth consecutive losing season.
Ain’t happening, folks. No way. Leach is headed to his third losing season in as many years in crimson. At Texas Tech, his only other college head coaching gig, he was 10-for-10 on winning seasons and bowl games.
Thanks to recent upgrades, the Cougars now have a miniature gem of a stadium (easily the smallest in the Pac-12), and the new football operations building is big time. Teenagers like shiny new things, so facility improvements have and will continue to aid the Cougars in recruiting.
Nothing, however, helps recruiting more than the sweet scent of victory. It is difficult to envision the Cougars beating 20th-ranked USC next Saturday in Pullman. On the other hand, it might be easier for the Cougars to win next Saturday than to win next year, when the graduated Halliday will be replaced by a raw, untested youngster.
Redshirt freshman Luke Falk, who may be the starting QB next year, never left the sideline Saturday. He’s thrown two passes all year. Leach said he kept Halliday in the entire game because it’s important to show WSU players it is essential to always try your best to succeed.
This is true. It’s also true that a young quarterback like Falk could benefit from playing a series or two at garbage time. Just like the Cougars could have benefited if Leach had not lost yet again on one of his infamous fourth-down gambles and handed the ball to Arizona at the WSU 34-yard line. The Wildcats quickly scored to go up 24-0.
Leach is a gambler by nature, and he gambled plenty and won at Texas Tech. At Washington State . . . not so much. After losing 22 of 33 games at Wazzu – including three in a row, and eight of the last 10 – Leach might want to step away from the backgammon table and play the penny slots until the Cougars hit the jackpot more regularly.