LEAF: It's the little things

IT'S ALWAYS THE little things – and they're not so little. It's the fundamentals that end up being the difference between winning and losing. For Washington State, some of the things that happened against Arizona can't happen at Stanford, not if Washington State wants to pull off the upset. And I'm speaking from personal experience.

I remember all of of my worst quarterbacking mistakes, not only in college but also the NFL. Some mistakes are things you can't control, and only present themselves in hindsight. But others, they were missed opportunities, times and instances where I blew it. And I kicked myself for them, over and over.

Focus is one of those things within your control, and what we're talking about here is having the same high level of focus on something you've done over and over again, everyday, for years out on the field. Good football teams, good football players, they make those plays. When they need to most, and when the grand opportunity presents itself.

AND I CAN'T HELP but compare this current situation to 1996. We just couldn't buy a break.

We were 5-2 heading into a home battle vs. USC and a bowl bid was up for grabs. It would have been Mike Price's first victory over USC.

Snakebit? You bet, we just didn't know it yet.

IN LOOKING AT last week's loss against Arizona, if you're fighting to take that next step, if you're looking for your first conference win, if you're at the bottom of the standings, then you can't lose focus like we did.

When you're playing on a team with one win, you have to go up with two hands in the end zone for a touchdown. You have to field the punt snap cleanly in the second half when your team is mounting a charge -- when you've knocked out their starting quarterback, and they're on the road. And you have to look at the man you're throwing to on a gadget play, and not throw it directly at a defender.

Improvement? You bet. But we're just not making the most of our opportunities. Again, it gets back to playing a full, 60-minute game. And we just haven't gotten that far yet.

Leaf: On the Pac-12
I've never been one for expansion, but I have to admit I like the thought of the North and South divisions in the new Pac-12.

Starting next year, it will be fun to watch a great battle -- and to have the champion crowned on the field. Bravo, commissioner.

The Pac-10 represented itself well on Thursday night, with Oregon having been the only No. 1 team over the last three weeks to stand up and act like the No. 1 team. And on national TV to boot.

In the NFL, I would often argue with teammates over which college conference was better. It always came down to the SEC and the PAC-10, but those SEC boys were always a little more adamant.

This season, our conference is not just holding its own, its running away with it. Want proof? The Cougars over the last 7 weeks have played 5 teams that were in the Top-25. Tough? Yeah, I think so, the toughest!

SO THERE I was in 1996, trying to throw the game winning TD against Southern Cal. And then I was being sacked, and I tried to switch the ball from my right hand to my left hand. That fumble ended our comeback bid. I had given away one of those opportunities.

You see, we were not a good enough football team, not in 1996, to be able to give away opportunities like those and still win ball games. We proceeded to lose the next two road games vs. Stanford and UCLA by large margins. At 5-5, with only the Apple Cup remaining, we could still go bowling.

But we played the first three quarters like we didn't want to go to a bowl, and I played particularly poorly. At the start of the fourth quarter, Coach Price called for a fake quick screen outside, and then to hit Shawn Tims on the wheel route. I had him, too. A wide open Tims in my sights.

And then the ball fell out of my right hand on my backward motion. I jumped on it as quick as I could, and got up with my head hanging. Coach called timeout and yelled for me to come over to the sidelines...

IT'S OVER THE airwaves, on the internet and in the papers. People see with their own eyes that the Cougs are better. And I understand that. We are still young, still developing physically and without depth -- and I understand that, too. But the most glaring mistakes from last Saturday were made by seasoned veterans, literally and figuratively.

And I know damned well these guys are coached on the most fundamental of levels. And that's what was so frustrating as I watched the WSU-Arizona game. Great moments are bred from great opportunity, but they only come to fruition if you take advantage of those opportunities.

We're still learning how to win. But there has to be a corner turned here, by the guys on the field and when that opportunity presents itself. And it should be sooner rather than later.

COACH PRICE practically grabbed my facemask and shook my head, ‘You can't do that! We are not good enough to overcome those types of mistakes. We need to take advantage of every opportunity we have!' And then he looked me straight in the eye and told me to run that same play and to get it done.

'Are you crazy? We just ran that! They've already seen it!'

I could never keep my mouth shut and just do what he said. I always made everything an argument that season -- it's probably another reason why our team, and me in particular, were not good enough yet in 1996.

Well, we ran that same play, and it went for 68 yards.

That play kick started a spirited, frantic fourth quarter comeback, one that was ultimately sent the game into overtime. We ended up losing in OT, but that spark had turned into a flame. We used those lessons we had learned throughout the summer, and in our '97 run at the Roses.

THE COUGARS ARE better, and it's good to see, but we're not taking advantage of our opportunities. We do not, repeat not, have to make a bunch of great, jaw-dropping plays in order to win. But our margin for error is still small, like in 1996. That team, like this one, was not good enough to make the fundamental and mental mistakes, the ones we can control, and still have enough left over to win.

The bounce of the ball, the toss of the coin, those things we can't control. But if we play sound, fundamental football, a Cougar victory is there for the taking – right here, and right now.

Ryan Leaf is a Washington State graduate who quarterbacked the 1997 Cougars to the Pac-10 title, a top 10 national finish and a berth in the 1998 Rose Bowl. He shattered records, earned first-team All-America honors, and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He later spent four seasons in the NFL, and three seasons as the quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M. Today, Ryan still keeps many balls in the air. He works in sales and marketing for West Coast Resorts, has become a passionate advocate for those trying to overcome addiction to prescription painkillers, is pursuing varied business interests, and writing a periodic column for CF.C. He can be contacted at rdl16@aol.com.

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