Daily Evergreen File
They Coug’d it.
Unfortunately for WSU fans, there really is no better adjective to describe the Cougars gut-wrenching 35-34 defeat at the hands of the Colorado Buffaloes on Homecoming Saturday.
The game served as both squads’ Pac-12 opener and saw the Cougars defense squander a 17-point lead in the final seven minutes of play.
The loss dropped the Cougars to 2-2 in the season, and after close calls against both Eastern Washington and UNLV it marks the third time in three weeks WSU let perceived inferior teams hang around late into games. Obviously this time, they paid for it.
After the game, WSU Head Coach Mike Leach was took some responsibility for the team’s loss. The theme of his post-game press conference reflected his perception of the team’s overall lack of mental toughness, specifically in the final quarter.
"The biggest thing is our mentality," Leach said. "We’re a mentally weak team, and I think that starts with us as coaches and we've got to change it."
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Connor Halliday made his third career start for the Cougars as incumbent starter Jeff Tuel sat out for the second consecutive game.
Halliday was the sparkplug in a 35-27 win against UNLV the previous week, and his four first-half touchdown passes against UNLV gave him a total of 13 in his first six games, four better than former NFL star Drew Bledsoe in his first six games at WSU.
Starting where he left off, Halliday helped Leach’s 'Air-Raid' offense take flight Saturday with three first-half touchdown passes including a 32-yard strike to wide receiver Gabe Marks just after kickoff.
However, offensive efficiency disappeared in the second half.
With about eight minutes remaining, Leach’s controversial decision to go for it on fourth down on Colorado’s 19-yard line ended up haunting both Leach and Cougar fans, and serves as a cruel reminder of the dangers of Leach’s notoriously aggressive play calling style.
After the game in a press conference, safety Deone Bucannon claimed responsibility for WSU’s complete breakdown in coverage.
“I didn't realize it was an'empty'formation,"he said."I was on the wrong guy. It was totally my fault."
It was the Cougars defense, ranked dead last in the Pac-12 conference, that allowed a sputtering Colorado offense, entering the stadium averaging just 289.7 yards per game, to march downfield for the winning score.
For better or worse, it is clear Leach’s spread offense, which he had success with at Texas Tech, is in full effect here in Pullman. The Cougars sit at 18th overall in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) rankings in average passing yards per game and 123rd in rushing yards.
Games, like the one on Saturday when WSU stuck with a pass-obsessed attack, are going to frustrate Cougar fans. Such games have been a staple of Leach’s offenses throughout his coaching career. Like it or not, Leach is building this team to live or die by passing the ball, and growing pains are going to happen.
That said, several problems can occur when coaching neglects to establish the run on offense and Cougar fans. Not having a run game allows the defense to key in on the pass and put more pressure on the quarterback, which Colorado took advantage of in the second half.
Also, in the fourth quarter of close games, running the ball helps eat-up the clock and keep the opposing defense tired on the field. The one minute drive by the Cougar offense late in the game did not buy their defense enough time to rest up.
With the Cougar defense constantly exposed by even the weakest opposing teams this season, there is definitely room for concern, especially since Leach specializes in recruiting offensive talent. This is a program in dire need of better talent on the defense if it wants to stay afloat in an evolving Pac-12 conference.
A loss against the Buffaloes puts a serious damper on any early hopes of WSU going to a bowl game this season. With No.2 Oregon on tap for the annual Seattle Game at CenturyLink Field this Saturday, the schedule only gets tougher for the Cougars.