Special teams gaffes stymie Cougars

THIS WAS ABOUT execution, not effort. There was little doubt that Washington State played hard during Saturday's 44-36 loss against UCLA at Martin Stadium. But myriad mind-boggling mistakes, particularly on special teams, undermined the Cougars' attempt at a torrid second-half comeback.

WSU (2-8 overall, 0-7 conference) entered the game as a significant underdog, but it did not feel that way as senior signal-caller Jeff Tuel guided the Cougars down to the Bruins' 21-yard line. But WSU could not advance the ball from there and junior kicker Andrew Furney's 39-yard field goal attempt was blocked and recovered by Roosevelt Davis for a 68-yard touchdown.

That was just the start of the Cougars' special-teams woes.

After Tuel drove down to the UCLA 1, but could not get the ball into the end zone, Furney was pushed back by personal foul. The result was another blocked field goal, this time from 33 yards out.

"I thought it was a game where we outplayed UCLA and we had four blocked kicks," WSU coach Mike Leach said during a postgame radio interview. "It's a shame."

One possession later, it was a blocked punt by Jordan Zumwalt that gave the Bruins possession at WSU's 19. That was one of the rare mistakes the Cougars managed to overcome as standout running back Johnathan Franklin fumbled on the ensuing play, which was recovered by Destiny Vaeao.

WSU even capitalized on that mistake as a seven-play drive culminated in a 6-yard touchdown pass from sophomore Connor Halliday to redshirt freshman Dominique Williams. But those points came at a significant expense – Tuel's health. He was injured on a fourth-down run and did not return. ESPN sideline reporter Shelley Smith reported that Tuel injured his right clavicle, which he fractured in 2011. The extent of Tuel's latest injury was not known.

UCLA (8-2, 5-2), buoyed by a 40-yard completion from Brett Hundley to Jordan Payton, took the lead for good as its quarterback found Franklin for a 16-yard touchdown pass.

That is when special teams, which arguably was the Cougars' greatest strength entering the game, failed again. True freshman Teondray Caldwell, who played for the first time since suffering an undisclosed injury Oct. 13 against California, fumbled the kickoff. That gave the Bruins possession at WSU's 24 and four plays later, Hundley found Joseph Fauria for a 9-yard touchdown pass.

It was systematic of a program that now has 11-48 during its last five seasons. And the mistakes did not end there. Halliday was sacked during the ensuing possession for a safety, and capitalizing on great field possession, Hundley needed just two plays to find Devin Fuller for a 10-yard touchdown to extend the Bruins' lead to 30-7.

The Cougars' final mistake of the first half came when defensive end Cassius Marsh stripped Halliday. Linebacker Eric Kendricks picked up the ball and returned it 40 yards to extend UCLA's advantage to 37-7 at halftime.

The volume of errors overwhelmed what WSU did well in the game. The Cougars actually outgained the Bruins 457 to 261. Their core of youthful wide receivers, led by redshirt freshman Dominique Williams, who had 108 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions, showed they could emerge without the presence of suspended standout Marquess Wilson. He announced Saturday that he left the program.

WSU's defense also stifled Franklin, who entered the game with 1,204 rushing yards. He finished with 66 yards on 19 carries.

"I was really proud of our defense," Leach said. "They did a really good job of stopping him." It culminated in a second half where the Cougars refused to surrender despite the score. Halliday, who completed 26 of 43 passes for 330 yards, threw for four second-half touchdowns. The third to Williams, with 6:25 left, cut WSU's deficit to 44-28.

"I think Connor hadn't taken a lot of reps," said Leach, referring to Halliday playing better during the second half. "Settling down was one thing. He started taking what they gave him and took the routine plays they gave him. Connor gets into trouble when he tries to make the super play."

And, on the one positive special-teams play of the game, linebacker Cyrus Coen's hit on returner Kenneth Walker resulted in a fumble that was recovered by the Cougars at the Bruins' 27. But Halliday was intercepted by Andrew Abbott to thwart any comeback prospects.

"This is a great effort," Leach said. "This is one of the best efforts of teams I've been involved with. We need to continue that."

The play marred an otherwise strong second half where Halliday found sophomore Kristoff Williams for a 3-yard touchdown pass with 1:31 remaining. WSU, which outscored UCLA 29-7 during the second half, had its attempt to force the game into overtime end when the onside kick was recovered by the Bruins to end an entertaining final 30 minutes.

But, as always, the only number that counts is the one on the scoreboard.

  • In addition to Tuel, Radio sideline reporter Jessamyn McIntyre reported that Williams left the game late in the fourth quarter with a foot injury.

    "I'm fine," Williams said.

    TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: About a half-dozen plays during the first half could be highlighted here. But Furney's initial field goal essentially resulted in a 10-point swing.

    CATCH OF THE GAME: Bobby Ratliff, who finished with 123 yards on five receptions, had a diving catch that set up the Cougars' final score.

    STAT OF THE GAME: WSU outgained UCLA 524-334.

    MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: Three turnovers are enough, but they do not account for a combined four blocked field goals and punts. The Cougars essentially had seven turnovers.

    LEADING TACKLERS: Senior linebacker Travis Long had nine tackles, including three for loss. Coen, Daniel Simmons and Casey Locker each had six stops.

    NEXT GAME: WSU plays its final road game Saturday at Arizona State.

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