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.”
Halladay’s motion looks hella awkward–throws off his back foot ?
Surprised Leach didn’t utter his classic “….a couple guys trying to do too much,” which was certainly true Saturday–especially Halladay.
As a USC and Stanford fan, I’d be stunned if WSU doesn’t file protests with the NCAA over the officiating. In one three play span, WSU receivers were held, knocked down, and pushed, but no calls (The announcers were incredibly lame on this). And this was just on series of downs! It happened repeatedly; especially on the offense’s right side (left side cornerbacks) The Cougars would have won, as the comments of the players suggest.
A PAC-12 ban on visiting SEC schools is actually in order. I’m not exaggerating.
I agree with you Dennis. It was incredible to see the WSU receivers get interfered with and see no flags. I find it hard to imagine that if this had happened to the Auburn receivers that the officiating crew wouldn’t have penalized them.
Did you notice the lack of flags on the hit 5 yards out of bounds against the Auburn QB?
How about the unsportmanlike after the buchanan hit? no call .. holding all night by the wasu O line …. many times they where behind the guy holding jerseys. Dont act like it was a one way street.
In the end PAC officials just call much more than the rest of the country.
Ok nunyabiz…I’ll grant you that usually the calls seem to even out. I guess, being from Oregon and rooting for the PAC12, especially with what seems like a media bias towards the SEC, I may be sensitive to anything that might look like an unfair advantage for the SEC.
However, I also realize that this can bias my perception of things in the game. So, in the end Auburn won the game and WAZZU will have to take it as a learning experience and hopefully use it to bounce back and get better as the season progresses…
And ultimately, it usually isn’t one call either way that makes or breaks the game. If the WAZZU qb doesn’t throw an interception in the redzone in the 4th quarter and they score tying the game 31-31, the result may have ended up differently.
The line judge had his hand on the flag several times when a “bat” could have seen the infraction, he just left it there. I figure he was either scared of the crowd or making extra $$$ by hanging on to it or maybe both.
Halliday. It’s frickin’ Halliday. Not Halladay.
how about the play where the auburn rb clearly stepped out of bounds on route to a 60 yd td and leach was begging for a review and didn’t get one. The announcers clearly stated he was out of bounds and replayed it over and over. This was some of the worst/biased officiating i’ve ever seen. I’m a cal fan!
They did review the run play and determined that the call stood. The running back’s feet were very close but hardly conclusive from the replay which was confirmed by the review. The officiating was bad both ways. Auburn got some no calls were pass interference should have been called but holding should have been called on WSU multiple times including a 4th down play that kept a WSU drive going towards the end of the game.
I was very impressed with WSU’s play against Auburn. Their improvement over last year is considerable. The offense seemed to have some early season timing issues but that’s to be expected. The defense played with a ferocity and pride that I haven’t seen in a while. It’s clear that Coach Leach and Co. are doing good things. Funny to see the Auburn fans clinging to life too as they realized they could lose to a team considered (fairly or not) to be among the worst in the PAC.
I’m a USC alum and fan but, having lived in SEC country for a few years, I always enjoy watching PAC v. SEC match-ups. I give all props to the top tier SEC teams – they deserve it! But when you have to listen to this dominant top-to-bottom conference dribble all day long it really gets annoying. They always say the PAC-12 defenses are a joke but, if the SEC teams had to play the variety of offenses and quality of QB’s that the PAC does every week, I doubt they would fare any better.
But I digress… Congrats to the Cougars for a hard-fought game. I know the loss hurts but I saw a different team out there and good things are sure to come. In fact, given USC’s up and down play against Hawaii, I’m more than a little nervous about next week.
I hope the quote from Halliday was a mistake. Seems odd for him to call out the opposing QB after he threw all those interceptions. I think he’d be well advised to focus on his own issues rather than criticizing the play of his opposition – who, btw, won the game.