Blowout again highlights Cougs' o-line woes

ABOUT THE ONLY intriguing development from Washington State's standpoint was waiting for coach Mike Leach's postgame interview. Indeed, the Cougars appeared to have an "empty-corpse quality" to them, to use Leach's words, during Saturday's 49-6 loss at Utah that felt eerily similar to the shutout loss two years ago on the road against a mediocre Arizona State squad.

Leach did not disappoint as he quickly referenced the comment that drew national attention last month.

"That basically would've been a zombie convention right there," he said during a postgame radio interview. "We had bad effort. We didn't come to play. We didn't come to compete. They could've beat us by 100."

Despite having the worst statistical offense in the Pac-12 – the Utes entered the game ranked 113th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total offense – they had few problems moving the ball against the Cougars (2-7 overall, 0-6 conference). WSU routinely was victimized by star running back John White IV, who had 101 yards on 18 carries, and quarterback Travis Wilson. The latter was more problematic as Wilson, who completed 17 of 21 passes for 171 yards, is a freshman who only is playing because of injuries to Jordan Wynn and Jon Hays.

For Utah (4-5, 2-4), which was winless in the conference before last week's victory against California, the White-Wilson tandem was enough to solidify an easy win during the first half. After White scored on a 43-yard touchdown run, Wilson found Max Moala for a 5-yard touchdown to extend the Utes' lead to 14-0 in the first quarter.

Utah increased that advantage to 31-0 at halftime. White scored on a 2-yard run and after a 20-yard field goal by Coleman Petersen, he again reached the end zone when Wilson found him for a 18-yard reception. Wilson finished 73 yards on five receptions.

But for all of the defense's problems, the offense was every worse. One week after he narrowly missed pushing WSU into overtime at Stanford, Tuel was erratic. He completed 23 of 45 passes for 232 yards, one touchdown and an interception, and was briefly replaced during the second half by sophomore Connor Halliday. Neither had much success moving the offense. The lone touchdown came during the final second of the game when Tuel found sophomore Kristoff Williams for a 5-yard touchdown pass.

Junior Marquess Wilson, who was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Dominique Williams, had a 30-yard reception and redshirt sophomore Bobby Ratliff had one that went for 25 yards. Neither of those plays helped the Cougars score, though. WSU's biggest catch arguably came by senior linebacker Travis Long on an interception, but that also did not translate into points as junior Andrew Furney missed a field goal.

The Cougars' youthful receiving corps has struggled this year with dropped passes and a lack of explosive plays. Wilson seems to miss the veteran presence of Jared Karstetter and Isiah Barton that he enjoyed last season.

BUT THE RECEIVERS arguably are the least of WSU's offensive problems, which again were on display at Utah. Most offensive lines at least perform decently in either run or pass blocking. The Cougars are overmatched in both areas, though. Their problems in the latter accentuate the worst attributes of Tuel, who has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, while the constant pressure highlights the downside of Halliday's eagerness to make a big play.

WSU entered the game allowing an FBS-worst 4.25 sacks per game – the Cougars surrendered six at Utah – and the least prolific run offense in the nation. Some of those can be corrected through recruiting, and Leach has commitments from several running backs and wide receivers for the class that signs in February. Some of them can even make an impact early.

But the struggles of the offensive line might be the most troubling aspect of the rebuilding job Leach faces. Among the players signed during former coach Paul Wulff's four recruiting class, John Fullington is the only offensive lineman to make an impact coming out of high school.

Wulff seemed to recognize that late in his tenure and Leach signed four offensive linemen – Denzell Dotson, Sam Flor, Eduardo Middleton and Pierson Villarrubia – he recruited, but asking them to stabilize an offensive line next year as redshirt freshmen probably is too much. That means improvement needs to start with the current group. Among the line's recent starters, only senior Wade Jacobson does not return next season. Now three-quarters into the season, the unit needs to begin pick up the nuances of Leach's Air Raid offense, which requires wider splits along the line.

"Our five couldn't whip their two," said Leach, whose line blocked for a running game that produced negative-4 yards. "That's just ridiculously inexcusable."

Leach believes that is relates more to effort than a talent deficiency.

"The offensive and defensive lines gave the least courageous effort I've seen in my career," he said.

It felt like it permeated throughout the roster Saturday as the Cougars help make a second-division Pac-12 opponent look like a Rose Bowl contender.

"We come out here with a great opportunity and we didn't have good effort," Leach said. "That's what's most disappointing."

When WSU looked like an empty corpse two years ago, it responded with three of its best efforts of the season, including a win at Oregon State.

Unless this group of Cougars can respond in similar fashion, WSU will have little more to look forward to this year than Leach's biting commentary.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: White's first touchdown came directly after a three-and-out for the Cougars. WSU's offense repeatedly failed to sustain any drives.

CATCH OF THE GAME: Kristoff Williams made a nice play on the Cougars' lone score to secure the ball while making sure he had at least one foot down in the back of the end zone.

STAT OF THE GAME: Utah had 205 rushing yards to negative-4 for WSU. Repeatedly sustaining drives without any running game is difficult.

MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: The Cougars had more passing yards, 259 to 248, than the Utes. But Utah's average completion resulted in nearly twice as many yards (9.5 to 4.8) as WSU.

LEADING TACKLERS: Defensive back Anthony Carpenter had 11 stops, while linebacker Chester Sua added eight.

NEXT GAME: WSU hosts UCLA on Saturday.

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