PULLMAN – The cold, hard facts are these: The Washington State Cougars are still losing too many games. Still losing too many home games. Still losing too many conference games. That said, only the most pessimistic of WSU fans could come away from Saturday’s 38-31 loss to second-ranked Oregon without cause for optimism.
The Cougars, 21½-point underdogs, led the mighty Ducks twice and were tied with them until the final 5½ minutes. WSU sacked Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota seven times and were outgained by a mere two yards (501-499).
“We should have beat them,” WSU offensive guard Gunnar Eklund said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
“We played very hard,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “I thought we took a step today . . . we’ve got to be a little better.”
A play here, a play there, and the Cougars would have pulled off one of the biggest upsets in school history. A raucous, sellout crowd of 32,952 and a national television audience were treated to a fabulously entertaining contest full of highlight-reel plays on both sides of the ball.
Observers also witnessed some of the worst tackling this side of the local pee wee league. The Ducks (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) will be mere pretenders to the national crown they aspire to win this season if they do not improve substantially on defense.
The Cougars (1-3, 0-1) have no chance at a national championship, and they might not play in a second straight bowl game if they don’t shore things up on defense. Anything seems possible, however, when senior quarterback Connor Halliday routinely passes for 400-plus yards and bemoans the fact that more gold could have been mined.
“I think I played well,” Halliday said, “but we left a lot of plays out there.”
One year after setting a major college record with 89 pass attempts and a Pac-12 record with 557 passing yards at Oregon, Halliday “only” went 43 for 63 for 436 yards and four touchdowns. Perhaps more impressively, he threw no interceptions, which is four fewer than in last year’s 52-24 loss in Eugene.
Halliday made clear what so many already suspected – Oregon’s secondary is leaky. Washington State’s defense remains similarly suspect, but the Cougars offset their penchant for giving up big plays by hounding Mariotta unmercifully as he scrambled behind an injury-riddled offensive line that started a junior walk-on and a true freshman at the tackle positions.
“We’ve got the best (defensive line) talent I’ve seen in the country,” WSU defensive end-tackle Xavier Cooper said. “I think sometimes we know what our talent is, so we tend to not practice to our ability.
“These past games, we saw we need to practice (harder) and need to push ourselves harder. This week, we pushed ourselves hard. It showed out there.”
What the Cougars have yet to show is their ability to win consistently at home. WSU players and coaches wax poetic about the (alleged) magic of Martin Stadium, but the Cougars are 4-21 in conference home games since 2008, and many of the scores have been obscene. The Cougars haven’t won a conference home opener since 2003.
Leach is just 6-6 at home in three years at WSU, and even that represents monumental progress after Paul Wulff compiled a 7-15 home record the previous four years. A victory over Oregon could have been a game-changer for WSU for years to come, because the Cougars finally have football facilities that can attract premier recruits.
Recruiting has improved under Leach, and several prospective Cougars were on hand Saturday. They witnessed an electric atmosphere – “This is as enthusiastic a student section as there is,” Leach said – in a 42-year-old stadium that has never looked better thanks to nearly $130 million in improvements since 2012.
Scout.com ranks WSU’s 2015 recruiting class 32nd in the nation. True, that’s based on non-binding verbal commitments, but it indicates the Cougars are starting to draw better talent to Pullman. Another indicator is the four redshirt freshmen and four sophomores who started Saturday and pushed Oregon to the brink of defeat.
In the end, however, it was one more loss for a program that has not experienced a winning season since 2003. Saturday’s defeat was far more encouraging than any of the others compiled during eight years of losing to Oregon, but that’s not good enough.
“We’re kind of past the, ‘If it’s a close game, feel good about that,’” Halliday said. “It’s just an opportunity we let slide.”
The Cougars must win at least five of their remaining eight games to earn a bowl invitation. The challenge begins anew Saturday at Utah (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
The surprising Utes are 3-0 after winning at Michigan on Saturday. If that doesn’t capture the Cougars’ attention, Leach will be only too happy to remind his veteran players of their 2012 visit to Salt Lake City, a 49-6 loss that ranks among the uglier losses in recent WSU history.