No amount of pushups will develop valor. Running drills do only so much for your intestinal fortitude. Weight-room sweatfests are designed to build muscle power, not mind power.
The Washington State Cougars, always quick to note how hard they work in the offseason and at practice, need to focus more on performance and results. Specifically, performance and results when they matter most: Game time.
The Cougars grasped defeat from the steely jaws of victory yet again Thursday night. Opening the season against a Rutgers team picked to finish somewhere south of Charlie Brown’s All-Stars in the Big Ten Conference, the Cougars managed to cough up three second-half leads in a 41-38 face-plant defeat at CenturyLink Field.
The Cougars’ post-game comments were every bit as ugly and blunt as the team’s late-game fadeaway.
Quarterback Connor Halliday: “I don’t think all 11 guys truly believed they were going to win that game.”
Offensive tackle Cole Madison: “We have all the talent to do it (win). I just don’t think people personally believe in themselves.”
Coach Mike Leach: “For too long around this university, expectations and performance and all that has been too low.”
The Cougars have met those low expectations by stringing together seven consecutive losing seasons, and 10 seasons in a row without a winning record (WSU finished 6-6 in 2006). Leach said his players must learn to demand more of themselves, their teammates and maybe even their coaches.
“It’s not going to get changed from the outside,” Leach said. “Everybody’s going to get 20 pats on their back before they get back to their house.
“We’ve got to change that. We’ve got to expect more out of ourselves, and we’ve got to get more out of ourselves, starting with the coaches.”
Halliday added, “We work our butts off in the offseason and during practice. I guarantee we practice harder than any team in the country with what Leach puts us through.
“Then we think because we do that, we deserve to win games. I mean, it’s all well and good that you work hard. When it’s winning time, you’ve got to go out there and put a drive together.”
The Cougars wasted one of the great performances in Pac-12/-10/-8/whatever history when Halliday threw for 532 yards and five touchdowns. His stats would have been even more spectacular if not for dropped balls, costly penalties and occasional pass-protection breakdowns.
All of the above were factors in WSU’s failed final drive, which never reached midfield.
“Coach Leach and all our coaches talk about building a legacy,” Halliday said. “Well, legacies are made on a drive like that.”
If, that is, such a drive is successful.
“We floundered,” Halliday said.
“It didn’t feel like we were all there (on the final drive),” wide receiver Vince Mayle said.
Despite the latest pitiful rushing effort under Leach (six net yards on 14 carries, half of which were quarterback sacks and scrambles), the Cougars piled up 538 total yards. Of course, that was just 42 more yards than Rutgers’ balanced attack mustered against another leaky WSU defensive effort.
“Tackling killed us,” defensive end-tackle Xavier Cooper said. “We’ve got to be better tacklers.”
Rutgers running back Paul James torched the Cougars for 173 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries. He scored the game-winning touchdown with 3½ minutes left after River Cracraft fumbled a punt at midfield.
“It was a spotty performance,” Leach summarized. “It wasn’t that bad a performance, it was a spotty performance, and we gave up way too many explosives (big plays).”
One “explosive” blew up in WSU’s face came on the first play from scrimmage. Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo blew past cornerback Tracy Clark – a fifth-year senior who is starting after seeing minimal playing time in college – and hauled in a perfectly lofted 78-yard touchdown pass from Gary Nova.
Plays like that at the start of the game simply do not happen to good teams. Never mind teams playing a lightly regarded opponent that flew cross-country to face a WSU squad that many have touted as a team with the potential to stir up trouble in the powerful Pac-12.
Just one game into the season, the Cougars may have already put themselves in a tough spot for returning to a bowl game. Rebuilding California is the only opponent on WSU’s nine-game conference schedule that might be regarded as a pushover. Four other Pac-12 opponents are ranked in the Top 25.
Regardless, the Cougars have slipped to 9-17 under Leach, including 0-3 in season openers. A half-empty stadium sat 30,927 witnesses to the last of the Seattle “home” games that WSU plans to schedule.
The Cougars lost the final six of those games. Thursday’s loss, however, was the most painful since … well, since WSU’s previous game, a New Mexico Bowl choke job that will not soon be forgotten.
“New Mexico was a debacle,” Halliday said. “I don’t think this was a debacle.”
One man’s non-debacle is another man’s gut-wrenching loss. Even in defeat, Halliday’s performance was one for the ages. Former walk-on Mitchell Peterson started at SAM linebacker for Cyrus Coen – he’s apparently hurt, though the Cougars never say anything about injuries, so who knows for certain? – and Peterson racked up a whopping 16 tackles. Mayle, 20 pounds lighter than a year ago and looking very much like an NFL prospect, hauled in 12 passes (one off the school record) for 124 yards and a touchdown.
“We played great offensively,” Halliday said. “I mean, I threw for 532 yards and five touchdowns. What more do you want?”
A victory would be nice.
“We didn’t get it done as an offense (on the final drive),” Halliday acknowledged. “It’s our job to go down and score.
“We didn’t do that. That’s a failure.”