Cougars need to move on from Emerald Pity

SEATTLE – Consider it a reminder. Washington State showed during its 55-17 loss Saturday at CenturyLink Field that Mike Leach's rebuilding project is not complete. But there is a more pressing question: Are the Cougars far enough along to play in a bowl for the first time in a decade?

After all, the Cougars have been in this position before. Two years ago, they harbored bowl aspirations only to get blown out by a three-win Oregon State team in Seattle. They never recovered as a 4-8 record led to Paul Wulff's firing.

Last season, Leach's hiring was met with visions of grandeur. But those quickly were erased as the Air Raid offense was nonexistent in a season-opening loss at BYU and culminated with a last-place finish in the Pac-12 North Division.

"At times it felt like last year's team," senior center Elliott Bosch said in a postgame interview. "Going forward, we need to kind of refocus, set goals and remember why we're doing this."

Saturday's rout – just the latest in what is becoming an annual tradition at CenturyLink – feels familiar. WSU players and coaches acknowledged that much. But Leach said there is a significant distinction. After harping on his players' effort for much of last season, Leach said that was not an issue against the No. 5 Cardinal (4-0 overall, 2-0 conference).

"I thought for the most part we played hard from start to finish," he said. "I thought we fought hard. We didn't always fight smart."

Sophomore wide receiver Gabe Marks, who had a team-high 75 yards on six receptions, felt similarly.

"We couldn't get out of our own way," he said. "We kept shooting ourselves in the foot."

While the Cougars (3-2, 1-1) hope maturity won't be an issue, it is clear that there remains a talent deficit between WSU and the conference elite. Stanford coach David Shaw outlined as much in his postgame interview with the media.

"We always try to stop the run, but they weren't going to run the ball," he said. "After we stopped the run, we played top down and tried not to give up the big pass.

"They did a good job early moving the ball, but if we can make them hold the ball then we could get after them."

Despite encouraging results against Auburn, where they rushed for 120 yards on 23 carries, the Cougars' struggles to garner any success on the ground have resumed. WSU's top two backs, Teondray Caldwell and Marcus Mason, produced just 25 rushing yards against the Cardinal.

Not all of that came be pitted on the running backs, though. The Cougars' offensive line also was overwhelmed by their opponent. In addition to their inability to run the ball, WSU watched both Connor Halliday and Austin Apodaca being helped off the field on consecutive third-quarter plays.

Apodaca returned – and Leach maintained that he would have reinserted Halliday before taking the redshirt off Tyler Bruggman – but the volume of quarterback injuries was a sight not seen by Cougars' fans since Portland State knocked out multiple signal-callers in 2008.

The situation is better than last year as Stanford's two sacks were eight fewer than in 2012, but developing and building depth on the offensive line remains a work in progress.

"I think one of the biggest things is maturity," Leach said. "They are a very mature team and they play like one. They come out at you physically. At times our technique would break down and they'd capitalize on it. You have to play extremely sharp for an extended period with them."

AND THAT WAS the bigger disappointment from a defensive standpoint. Even when the offense was sputtering, the defense has always responded. But a pass defense that contained its first four opponents and came up with some timely turnovers was abysmal against Stanford. Quarterback Kevin Hogan completed 16 of 25 passes for 286 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Most significantly, the Cardinal converted 5 of 8 third-down opportunities during the first half, while WSU was unsuccessful in all six of its situations. The result was a 17-3 halftime lead for Stanford.

"It was a closer game than the score," Leach said. "What killed us was the explosives on defense and the offense not finishing drives. We'd come down to the one play where we had to make something happen and we weren't able to do it."

Five games is a large enough sample size to show that it might be an ongoing struggle for the Cougars' offense to overcome its inexperience and inadequacies. If WSU wants to end its decade-long streak without a bowl appearance, its defense needs to show the 560 yards of total offense allowed against the Cardinal simply can be attributed to a poor performance against a stellar team.

"They changed their scheme a little bit and that caught us off guard," senior safety Deone Bucannon said. "But that's no excuse. We're way better than that. I have no doubt in my mind that we can beat anyone."

The next opportunity to prove that comes at 1 p.m. Saturday at California (1-3, 0-1), which is the lone Pac-12 team with a losing record after losing 55-16 Saturday at Oregon. The rest of the conference outside of the few elite ranked programs and Colorado, which again might be the worst team in the Pac-12, features a vast middle class. That means WSU also must take advantage of their home-field advantage against their remaining opponents at Martin Stadium: Oregon State, Arizona State and Utah.

But that only happens if the Cougars grow from their mistakes.

"As a team, if we look at it as a bump in the road or a step backwards, that would be a distraction for us," sophomore linebacker Darryl Monroe said. "We have to learn from it. We can't dwell on this loss."

Cougfan Top Stories