PULLMAN — Mike Leach isn’t sure what it will take to pull his Washington State players away from the frail attitude they exhibited Saturday — for good reason.
The Cougars (2-2, 0-1 Pac-12) suffered another colossal fourth quarter meltdown (even for their standards) at Martin Stadium, surrendering a 17-point lead in the final seven minutes in what became a shocking 35-34 loss to previously woebegone Colorado (1-3, 1-0 Pac-12).
“The biggest thing is our mentality,” Leach said an hour after Colorado quarterback Jordan Webb scored on a four-yard touchdown to cap the Buffaloes’ 21-point fourth quarter. “We’re a mentally weak team and that’s got to change. As a team, we’re afraid to be successful, so when we get ahead we want to relax and enjoy it, which is crazy.”
WSU appeared ready to cap its homecoming week in grandiose fashion after Andrew Furney belted a 45-yard field goal to give WSU a 31-14 seconds into the fourth quarter.
The comfortable 17-point lead evaporated when WSU safety Deone Bucannon misread the Buffs’ offensive formation, then failed to provide help deep downfield. The result: A 70-yard pass from Webb to tight end Nick Kasa that cut the deficit to 10.
Leach’s Air Raid Offense continued to sputter in the ensuing possession, settling for a six-play, six-yard drive that ended in yet another second-half punt. WSU hasn’t scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter in 2012.
Two plays later, Colorado running back Tony Jones busted outside for an 84-yard touchdown run. The big play and the ensuing three-and-out from Connor Halliday and Co. gave Colorado its chance to avenge last year’s 31-27 loss in Boulder.
“Physically we aren’t that bad, but mentally we are afraid to be successful,” Leach said. “We are afraid to win, and I don’t know if we are afraid of the responsibility that comes with winning, but we need to go out there and take pride in our individual battles. We let setting — time, place, score — impact us, and that’s crazy. Unless we get that changed the results will be the same.”
The Cougars appeared ready to atone for three weeks of squandered scoring chances in the first half. Halliday, who finished 32 of 60 for 401 yards and four touchdowns, two minutes into the game found freshman wide receiver Gabe Marks for a 32-yard touchdown pass.
After Colorado knotted it at seven, Halliday shook off the first of his two picks to find Marquess Wilson streaking into the end zone early in the second quarter. A touchdown pass from Halliday to Isiah Myers later in the quarter made it 21-7 at halftime.
That advantage shrank just minutes into the third quarter when WSU running back Carl Winston fumbled a swing pass, setting up a 1-yard Webb touchdown run a play later.
Halliday sounded disgusted.
“I don’t think it’s complacency,” he said when asked to describe what went wrong. “I just think it’s stupid plays. It’s all mental.”
Critics seeking to assign blame needn’t look farther than coordinator Mike Breske’s defense. Impressive in forcing three turnovers in the first three quarters, a unit that entered the game 30th in the nation in total defense surrendered 531 yards to a Colorado offense that entered the game 104th in total yards.
Cornerback Daniel Simmons, who finished with six tackles and an interception, looked shaken after the loss.
“In my opinion we lost to a team that we are far better than,” he said. “On our side of the ball we just… I don’t know.”
Leach, meanwhile, erupted when asked if the defeat would serve as a wake-up call for a team that had six freshmen seeing extensive playing time.
“I don’t know how in the hell we are not awake. We’ve got this rich tradition of kicking everybody’s ass so we’re not awake?” he asked sarcastically. “I don’t know how in the hell you can’t be awake. I’m not saying you’re wrong. The saddest thing of all is I suspect you’re right.”
The loss spoiled another stellar defensive performance from Travis Long. The senior linebacker finished with 2.5 sacks, seven tackles and a forced fumble. On offense, Marks eclipsed the century mark for the second consecutive week, posting 107 yards and a touchdown.
Unsurprisingly, Leach didn’t care to discuss personal accolades after the defeat. He just had more questions.
“We haven’t had a game yet that looks like Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practices,” he said. “If you can do it then, I don’t know why you can’t do it Saturday.”