Washington State Football at an Early Crossroads Under Mike Leach

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Few teams have endured quite as wretched a 3-game stretch as Washington State football.

Dating back to last December’s New Mexico Bowl, when the Cougars saw a 12-point lead evaporate in under three minutes to lose to Colorado State, 48-45.

Of course, the Rams’ torrid comeback more than eight months is evidence that a team can rally from a double-digit deficit in fewer than three minutes. Perhaps that knowledge could serve as motivation for the Cougars Friday at Nevada, trailing 24-13 with the Wolf Pack facing 4th-and-short with 2:52 remaining.

But then, Washington State was flagged for having 12 men on the field. First down, Nevada. 0-2, Washington State.

The 12-men-on-the-field penalty may not be as singularly pivotal in Washington State’s loss at Nevada as the Jeremiah Laufasa that gave Colorado State the ball on the decisive possession of the New Mexico Bowl.

However, the two plays are equally indicative of the unfortunate ritual known as Cougin’ It. Folks in the Southeast might know this phenomenon as Clemsoning. It means losing in a most gut-wrenching and/or confounding fashion.

The end of the New Mexico Bowl was certainly confouding–namely, the decision to rush a cold Laufasa in the waning moments. Washington State head coach Mike Leach recoiled at the question when addressed at the New Mexico Bowl press conference he arrived late to.

Friday’s loss at Nevada was just as confounding, albeit for much different reasons.

Whereas quarterback Connor Halliday torched Colorado State for six touchdowns in December, he managed just one at Nevada. It was the Cougars’ lone touchdown of the night.

Leach’s air-raid offense is designed to produce big yardage and the points to match. Washington State may have lost the New Mexico Bowl, but it did so with Leach’s signature element firing on all cylinders.

It was more of the same in a season-opening loss to Rutgers.

The Cougars defense struggled to stop once embattled Scarlet Knights quarterback Gary Nova, but Washington State’s own signal caller, Halliday, kept it in the game with five touchdowns and more than 500 yards.

However, Halliday was more or less forced to keep Washington State at arm’s reach with…well, his arm. The Cougars mustered all of six yards on 14 carries against the Rutgers defense.

Leach seemed somewhat more committed to establishing the run against Nevada. Jamal Morrow and Theron West combined to rush for 61 yards.

They provided some diversity for Halliday to work with, as he continued to pile up the yards Friday–390 of them. The scores just weren’t coming.

Nevada kept several defensive backs on the field to contend with Washington State’s multiple-receiver sets, but the Wolf Pack brought ample pressure on blitzes. While it didn’t curtail the Cougars’ yard production, Nevada kept Washington State out of the end zone.

Frankly, Nevada made Washington State look one-dimensional.

If Washington State’s offense has indeed gone stagnant, what do the Cougars have left? The defense had stellar moments in 2013, holding USC to seven points in a win there. Washington State also grounded Arizona’s uptempo attack just one week before the Wildcats blew out Oregon.

But its start to 2014 on defense is hardly awe-inspiring. Losing Deone Bucannon and Deonte Horton dealt Washington State two big blows.

It’s evident the defense regressed when it’s surrendering 41 points to a Rutgers team that has been notoriously anemic on offense in recent years.

But then the Washington State defense comes out and plays a rather solid game against Nevada. Yes, quarterback Cody Fajardo had success on designed runs. Otherwise, however, the Cougars defense gave the offense plenty of opportunities to take the lead.

That Washington State’s two losses can be attributed to two entirely different issues can be interpreted in a few ways. First: the Cougars have the elements to be a complete team, but just need to put it together. That’s the positive spin.

The negative spin is in just two outings, Washington State has demonstrated some really glaring flaws in all three phases–aside from the offense’s ineffectiveness Friday, the Cougars also had two missed field goals in the third quarter that dramatically altered the fourth quarter’s dynamic.

Regardless your interpretation, the fact remains that Washington State is a loser of three straight, heart-breaking decision. Two leave the Cougars in an 0-2 hole to start the season.

For the middle-to-lower teams in the ultra-competitive Pac-12, wins come at a premium. Making a second straight postseason looked like an uphill climb for the Cougars to me before the season–and that was with me penciling in Rutgers and Nevada as victories.

After the positive steps forward Washington State took behind Leach in 2013–beating USC and Arizona on the road, taking SEC champion Auburn to the wire, ending a decade-long bowl drought–the Cougars are in real danger of taking a giant step backward.