The Cougars are paying Mike Leach $2.25 million a year to fix the mess left behind by Wulff. Considerable progress has been made in Leach’s second season in Pullman, but on Saturday night, the Cougars staged a late-game meltdown that brought back chilling memories of so many recent WSU teams that looked as heartless as they were hopeless.
“We’ve been turning down (challenges) in the face of adversity for too long. That’s got to change,” Leach barked after WSU gave up the final 35 points in a 52-24 loss to Oregon State.
A highly entertaining game between two pass-happy rivals quickly disintegrated on a chilly Palouse evening when Connor Halliday suddenly reverted to his gunslinger ways of the past. He threw three interceptions on WSU’s first five plays from scrimmage in the fourth quarter; the Beavers scored touchdowns after all three picks; and the Cougars were blown out in a game that may prove pivotal in their bid to go to a bowl for the first time in a decade.
Leach benched Halliday after his third interception – “I thought he gave in,” Leach said — but the Cougars wound up turning over the ball on all five possessions in the second half. They finished with six turnovers, five fumbles (two lost) and 598 yards allowed.
Oh well. The Cougars only have to bounce back on the road against second-ranked Oregon next Saturday. The Ducks (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) have nipped the Cougars by a mere 33½ points per game during a six-game winning streak against WSU (4-3, 2-2).
Even the most diehard Cougar fans – and plenty of them braved a chilly evening on Dad’s Weekend to form a rare sellout crowd at Martin Stadium – would be hard-pressed to imagine how WSU can bring down the mighty Ducks. That is especially true in light of Saturday’s stunning collapse.
“It can’t be physical,” Leach said. “It has to all be psychological, and we have to be tough enough to manage that.
“I mean, how can you play like we did for two-thirds of (the game), and then the other third just let it unravel like that?”
The coach added, “It certainly wasn’t just Connor. We came out stormin’ in the third quarter. For two-thirds of the game, we played about as well as we can play.
“Then the last third, we faced adversity and waved the white flag.”
The Beavers (5-1, 3-0) shoved that white flag somewhere extremely uncomfortable for the Cougars. Oregon State came from behind to forge three of the game’s four ties, including the 24-24 tie that resulted from an apparent botched fake punt late in the third quarter.
Not that Leach was in the mood to describe the play.
“It was miscommunication . . .it was basically my fault,” Leach said. “We had two things going there, and I allowed it to happen.”
Asked what those “two things” might be, Leach growled, “None of your business.”
“We let them win that game,” running back Marcus Mason said. “We should have won that game and we should have won it by a lot.”
“It’s really disappointing because it’s a game we should have won,” center Elliott Bosch said. “We were competing really well. We played 2½ good quarters and we kind of explode like that and it’s a landslide.”
Asked to identify the most important thing the Cougars can take out of the loss, Mason said, “Just not everyone trying to be the super hero. We’ve just got to go out and play our game, because so far, the way we’ve played this year, no one’s been able to stop us. We’ve only been able to stop ourselves.”
Saturday’s late collapse supported Mason’s statement, particularly with regard to WSU’s offensive players.
Obviously, WSU’s defense also deserves part of the blame, since the Beavers racked up 52 points, 496 passing yards and 598 total yards. Of course, the turnovers provided Oregon State with good field position, and Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks – the nation’s leading passer and receiver – looked like the greatest pitching and catching combo since Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra.
Halliday, who limped badly at times in a glorious performance at California last week, appeared to be far more comfortable physically Saturday. Physically, anyway. Mentally . . . who knows?
Halliday’s talent is unmistakable, but questions remain about the workings inside his helmet. The redshirt junior has thrown at least one interception in all 13 of his college starts. Halliday ranks third in the nation with 2,241 passing yards — Mannion has 2,511 in one less game – but he has thrown only one more touchdown pass (14) than interceptions. For his career, the difference is just 38-30.
If Halliday goes color blind in Eugene and throws to more green and yellow jerseys than crimson and gray ones, the Cougars almost certainly will cough up 52 or more points and/or 560 or more yards for the third straight game. Not exactly a blueprint for making bowl travel plans.
“We’re a mentally strong team,” WSU safety Deone Bucannon said. “We’ll go into the next game, we’re not going to think about this game.”
Actually, it might do the Cougars some good to think long and hard about Saturday’s game. How much it hurt to lose. How much it hurt to lose in that manner. How much it hurt to lose in front of so many fans who packed Martin Stadium in search of hope after a decade of hopelessness.