Fake punt haunts Cougars

PERHAPS IT IS time to eliminate the fake-punt call from Washington State's playbook. Permanently. For the second time in less than a decade, that play proved disastrous for the Cougars during Saturday's 52-24 loss against Oregon State in a Pac-12 contest at Martin Stadium.

Both decisions were spurred when WSU's defense was struggling to make stops. In 2005, then-coach Bill Doba's fake punt call at Cal helped turn a 38-28 late WSU lead into a 42-38 loss. Eight years later, the fake punt once again decimated WSU's momentum and opened up the floodgates, this time against Oregon State.

The Cougars (4-3 overall, 2-2 conference) were tied, 24-all, during the third quarter when they went three-and-out at their own 34. WSU coach Mike Leach's decisions to go for it on fourth down in the first and third quarter translated into touchdowns.

The team's third risk – one Leach called a "miscommunication" – proved to be anything but a charm for WSU as linebacker Jared Byers struggled to corral the snap --and he looked downright surprised the ball came his way. The turnover gave the Beavers (5-1, 3-0) possession at the Cougars' 27-yard line and Mannion needed just two plays to find Brandon Cooks for an 8-yard touchdown pass.

OSU never relented from then out – the Beavers scored 35 unanswered points to end the game – and junior quarterback Connor Halliday regressed to early-season form as he pressed and threw interceptions on three consecutive series. Halliday finished 26 of 49 for 248 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions before he was relieved by redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca in the fourth quarter.

In addition to that, the Cougars' secondary struggled all night to contain OSU's passing attack. The Beavers finished with 598 yards of total offense.

"We didn't lose the football game because of one play," Leach said of the botched punt fake during a postgame radio interview. "We lost the football game because of 20 minutes of horrible plays all around."

THE FINISH LEADS into the bigger question for the Cougars: How will they respond? This year's team was positioned to put itself on the brink of bowl eligibility with a win against the Beavers.

Now, the math becomes more complicated for WSU to reach postseason for the first time in a decade. The Cougars' two remaining home opponents, Arizona State and Utah, have a combined 8-4 record. And two of their three remaining road contests, including next week at No. 2 Oregon, are against ranked teams.

While it won't be any easy path to navigate, that does not mean the postseason is an unattainable prospect for the Cougars. WSU showed the fortitude to win at then-No. 25 USC after a tough season-opening loss at Auburn and also dominated the second half of last week's 44-22 win at California.

This time, the Cougars had six turnovers, including a fumble by sophomore running back Teondray Caldwell late in the first half immediately following senior Anthony Carpenter's interception in the end zone. OSU capitalized to take a 17-10 lead into halftime when Storm Woods scored on a 3-yard run.

"I don't think it was necessarily a turning point," said Leach, referring to the fake punt. "That would alibi a lot of bad plays offensively and defensively.

Leach said his team played well for "two-thirds" of the game.

"It went away suddenly," he said. "We just unraveled. We've got to be better than that."

Sophomore running back Jeremiah Laufasa, who rushed for a game-high 54 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, tried to offer an explanation.

"Maybe you try and force plays and make too much happen," he said. "You see what happens when you try and force things at times. You don't get the best performance you want."

Regardless of the situation, senior center Elliott Bosch said the Cougars are going to have to be more mature if they want to realize their goals.

"I think it was just a little adversity," he said. "We've got to learn how to handle that. It got out of hand pretty quickly."

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