Washington State’s annual dog-and-pony show in Seattle began on a sour note when the scoreboard operator was unable to get the clock to operate properly at the start of the Cougars’ annual “home” game at CenturyLink Field.
If only the scoreboard had been the only thing not working properly for the Cougars.
Three weeks of solid play, encouraging wins and rising optimism came to a crashing halt when fifth-ranked Stanford lambasted WSU, 55-17, Saturday night. The game drew the smallest crowd (40,095) since the Cougars began moving home games to Seattle in 2002. Few of the spectators who braved intermittent rain and constant Stanford touchdowns stayed til the end.
Afterward, Cougars coach Mike Leach indicated that he may have been hit even harder than the numerous Cougars who limped off the field during the game.
“It was a closer game than the score,” Leach dared to say.
Leach is known for outlandish statements, but that might be the all-timer. Truthfully, the Cougars played every bit as horribly as the score indicated against a talented, physical, experienced team that manhandled WSU on the line of scrimmage.
Mind you, the Cardinal’s defense scored the same number of touchdowns as the Cougars’ offense (two). The Cardinal racked up 560 total yards – almost 200 more than WSU – and the Cougars had to throw a whopping 65 passes to match the 322 passing yards that Stanford managed on less than half as many passes (28).
“I think we need a better mindset,” WSU offensive tackle Gunnar Eklund said.
That may be true, but the Cougars also need better talent to play with the big boys of college football. From start to finish, the reigning Pac-12 champions from Stanford established themselves as vastly superior to a Washington State team that remains young, inexperienced and vulnerable at several positions.
That most definitely includes quarterback, where the Cougars were forced to go with redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca most of the second half after starting quarterback Connor Halliday found himself on the receiving end of one of the most vicious hits of the night.
Asked if he expects Halliday to play Saturday at California, Leach said, “Yes.” Knowing how secretive Leach is about injuries, and knowing that Halliday s-l-o-w-l-y limped to the locker room with the help of two people in the third quarter, do not be surprised if Apodaca – the only non-true freshman quarterback on the roster besides Halliday – is under center in Berkeley.
Apodaca threw the first two touchdown passes of his college career Saturday, but there is a reason why he has played in only one other game this season and was not used in a 42-0 win over Idaho a week ago. Halliday was the clear-cut starter, even though he ranks among the national leaders with nine interceptions.
Are the Cougars’ visions of a winning season and bowl game – which would be firsts at WSU since 2003 – torpedoed if Halliday misses extended time? Quite possibly. Stanford certainly exposed the Cougars as not-ready-for-prime-time players.
“They’re a great team,” Apodaca said of the Cardinal. “You’ve got to give all the credit to them.
“They’re a very mature team,” Leach added, “and they play like one. They have the discipline to hang in there and do their thing. They outlast ya.”
At one point Saturday, the Cardinal “outlasted” WSU to the tune of 45 unanswered points after the teams exchanged field goals on their opening drives. Halliday and Apodaca, who faced tremendous pressure all night, both threw interceptions that were returned 30 yards for touchdowns in the third quarter.
“They didn’t make mistakes,” WSU wide receiver Gabe Marks said. “We made mistakes.”
Oh boy, did they ever. Glaring, gruesome mistakes, over and over and over. Blocks, passes, catches and tackles that had to be made, weren’t. Repeatedly.
“We couldn’t get out of own way,” Marks said.
That certainly included the WSU defense. Ranked among the nation’s best after wins over a scoring-challenged USC team and badly overmatched Southern Utah and Idaho squads, the Cougars were absolutely torched through the air and on the ground by a Stanford team that had emphasized the run far more than the pass in the first three games.
“We expected one thing,” Cougars safety Deone Bucannon said, “and they did something else.”
“They kind of caught us off guard,” WSU linebacker Darryl Monroe said. “I commend their coaches and players.”
Of course, the Cardinal averaged 5.9 yards on 40 running plays, so it’s not like the Cougars could stop the run, either.
“We just need to line up and do our routine plays,” Bucannon said.
Well … no. Routine doesn’t cut it at the Pac-12 level. The Cougars need to play far better – and make plenty of great plays — if they want to avoid yet another last-place finish.
Saturday’s performance was embarrassing for the Cougars, plain and simple. True, it was the first bad game for a team that has progressed significantly from a year ago. And yet, it was a painful reminder how far short of elite the Cougars remaining.
“It was a learning lesson,” Monroe said.
“At times,” Eklund said, “it felt like last year’s team.”
“We know we’re better than that,” Bucannon said. “We know we’re way better than that.”
Prove it, Cougars. After Saturday night’s game, there were at least 40,000 doubters.