PULLMAN – Washington State football fans were presented with crimson flags upon arriving at Martin Stadium Thursday night. WSU’s players skipped the crimson flags. They were too busy waving white ones.
Playing in 30ish temperatures that were supposed to cool off the visitors from Arizona State, the Cougars lost 55-21 and looked mighty feeble doing it.
“Embarrassing,” summed up WSU defensive end Xavier Cooper.
The Cougars’ Halloween night performance was frighteningly similar to the horror stories that regularly played out at Martin Stadium a few years ago. On an evening when 25th-ranked Arizona State became bowl eligible, the Cougars became mere speed bumps for the Sun Devils. WSU trailed 21-0 after 12 minutes and 42-7 late in the second quarter.
“Everybody was ramped up and ready,” quarterback Connor Halliday said. “We just kinda came out and didn’t make things happen.”
Oh, things happened all right. Dropped balls. Missed tackles. Blown assignments. Passes thrown to the wrong area code.
“We just came out and . . . I don’t even know how to explain it,” Halliday said.
“I think we spend too much time focusing on our opponent than we do our job,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “Something good happens for our opponent, and I think we allow it to distract us from our job.”
Speaking of job performance, some folks aren’t overwhelmed with Leach. He’s 7-14 in two years in Pullman. Paul Wulff went 6-18 his last two years in Pullman, and Wulff made just $600,000 a year compared to the $2.25 million Leach is hauling in to revive football on the Palouse.
“Is it too early to start the ‘Fire Leach’ chant?” a reader asked after the game on the website of Spokane’s Spokesman-Review newspaper.
“I think the Mike Leach experiment should be about over,” another reader suggested.
WSU’s defense has been torched for more than 50 points and 550 yards every game during a three-game losing streak. Not that the offense had anything to brag about Thursday. Halliday passed for 300 yards and two touchdowns, but he needed 54 passes to do it, and the Cougars somehow managed to rush for just two yards for the second game in a row.
If Halliday wasn’t always on target with his passes, he hit the bull’s-eye when asked why the offense struggled.
“We didn’t block very well,” Halliday said in his usual frank manner. “I didn’t throw the ball very well. We didn’t catch it very well, and we didn’t run very well.”
Game, set, match. Barely 20,000 fans bothered to see if the Cougars would trick or treat them, and a good chunk of those folks were long gone by halftime.
“The bottom line is, if we played better, more people would be in the stands,” Halliday said. “We can look at ourselves for that. That’s our own fault.”
The Cougars had not played in 12 days following their first bye week (same for Arizona State), but Halliday said the layoff was not to blame for WSU’s problems.
“The bye couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” he said. “We were really beat up physically.”
Now the Cougars are beat up mentally. They have yet another bye before traveling to Arizona on Nov. 16, but judging from the result after their first bye, the Cougars might want to schedule a non-leaguer with Colfax High to (hopefully) to restore their confidence.
“This team has a lot of heart,” safety Deone Bucannon said. “We’re never going to give up.”
“We’re just trying to do too much,” Cooper said. “We want to win so bad.”
Wanting and doing are different entities at the Pac-12 level. WSU has been outscored 169-85 the past three games, and Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly made the Cougars look foolish at times with fake handoffs and play-action passes.
“I thought we played hard,” Leach said. “Wanted to make too much happen. I thought we hesitated, and in the end, couldn’t overcome our self-inflicted wounds.”
Halliday “only” threw 54 passes – the Cougars ran the ball just nine times, excluding two sacks – in his first outing since he shattered all kinds of records with 89 passes for 577 yards at Oregon two weeks ago. Leach said Thursday’s game was “one of” the junior’s best performances, considering the opposition.
“Probably the best secondary in the conference,” Leach said.
“That’s probably the best (pass) coverage team we’ve played,” Halliday said. “We had a lot of trouble getting (receivers) off their ‘man’ press coverage.
“In this offense, we’ve got to win against man coverage. And some of the times we did, I missed the throw. It’s tough throwing when your feet aren’t set (due to the pass rush), but I’ve got to find a way.”
Arizona State started eight seniors on defense, compared to WSU’s four. Experience is one reason why the Sun Devils are 6-2 (4-1 Pac-12). Inexperience is one reason why the Cougars are 4-5 (2-4 Pac-12) and must win two of their three remaining regular-season games to become bowl eligible.
“I’m not even going to think about bowl games,” Bucannon said. “I’m thinking one game at a time.”
“We need to focus on our job and the next play (instead of bowls),” Leach said. “It’s too tempting for us to clutter our minds with a bunch of extra stuff, because all that matters is the next play and how you do your job and doing it collectively.
“If you’re able to that and have the discipline to do that, you’re a good team.”
Rarely have the Cougars played like a good team in recent weeks. Halliday said it’s not too late to turn things around.
“We’ve got three games left to be 7-5,” he said. “Say everything you want to say about these last three (losses).
“When’s the last time a team was 7-5 here? Let’s look at it that way and go get three wins.”