"Growing pains" evident in Cougs' latest loss

THE WORST IS OVER. That is the most positive takeaway from Washington State's 62-38 loss Saturday at No. 2 Oregon. The Cougars have faced three ranked opponents in their first five Pac-12 games, but might not see any the rest of the season. That is good news as WSU (4-4 overall, 2-3 conference) is not ready to challenge the conference's elite in coach Mike Leach's second season.

The Cougars showed that during their 55-17 loss Sept. 28 against then-No. 5 Stanford. And they reinforced it Saturday against the Ducks (7-0, 4-0).

"We've just got to become more complete and consistent," Leach said during a postgame radio interview. "Some of those are growing pains."

None of that comes as a surprise. While Leach still is building a program, Mark Helfrich inherited a national championship contender from Chip Kelly. It starts with quarterback Marcus Mariota, who completed 23 of 32 passes for 327 yards and two touchdowns. He is projected by many as a top five selection in the upcoming NFL Draft if he chooses to eschew his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility. Mariota and his teammates, who produced 719 yards of total offense, were dominant. But the Ducks' offense has produced similar breathtaking statistics against everyone. Oregon has scored at least 55 points in all but one games this season.

The more significant storyline for the Cougars was their ability to persevere through adversity. It reflected well that they overcame a 27-7 deficit during the second quarter as sophomore defensive end Xavier Cooper stripped Mariota and sophomore BUCK linebacker Kache Palacio recovered at the Oregon 33-yard line.

Junior quarterback Connor Halliday, who set a Football Bowl Subdivision record with 89 pass attempts, later translated that into a touchdown when he found true freshman wide receiver River Cracraft for a 12-yard score on fourth-and-5. Purdue quarterback Drew Brees' 83 attempts on Oct. 10, 1998, was the previous record.

Cooper, who finished with 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, made another big play when sophomore linebacker Darryl Monroe sacked and forced a Mariota fumble on the ensuing drive. Cooper picked up the ball, and buoyed by a block by junior nose tackle Toni Pole, returned it for a 29-yard touchdown to cut the Cougars' deficit to 27-21 with 5:35 minutes left in the first half.

Late in the first half, senior safety Deone Bucannon also forced a Byron Marshall fumble at WSU's 12. Halliday, who completed 58 of 89 passes for 557 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions, quickly drove the Cougars downfield to set up a 49-yard field goal that cut their deficit to 34-24 at halftime.

BUT THE DUCKS always had a response and they secured the victory with 28 unanswered points to open the second half. The turnovers that helped the Cougars get back into the game shifted in favor of Oregon as Halliday was intercepted on three of his first four possessions of the second half.

"It's been pretty much the same story all year," Halliday said. "I'm kind of at a loss for words. I can't seem to get it figured out. It's frustrating."

For better or worse, Halliday seems to have a stronghold on the job. Leach reinforced that when he declined to pull him during the second half in favor of redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca. Afterward, Leach said it "was never a consideration to take him out." And barring injuries, the coaching staff is not going to play true freshman Tyler Bruggman with just four games remaining.

While the interceptions cannot be overlooked, the circumstances were far from ideal. The Cougars' anemic running game – they produced just 2 rushing yards on 12 carries – rendered them one-dimensional.

"Oregon didn't really give us many looks to run the ball," Halliday said. "They're pretty athletic up front."

That inevitably is predictability going to lead to some mistakes, but the Cougars made some plays, too. Sophomore Gabe Marks, who had a game-high 143 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions, displayed the explosiveness that made him one of the most highly touted recruits of Leach's regime.

"We played well as an offense," Halliday said. "We threw for a crap-ton bunch of yards. If we don't turn the ball over, we're in the game."

That will be the biggest challenge for WSU to solve during its upcoming bye week. The Cougars do not play again until Oct. 31 against Arizona State. The Sun Devils (5-2, 3-1) might be ranked after their 53-24 win Saturday against No. 20 Washington.

WSU then has another bye week before moving into the stretch run against three flawed teams. The first comes Nov. 16 at Arizona, which features shaky senior quarterback B.J. Denker. Then there is the home finale Nov. 23 against a Utah team that generally struggles on the road and features the Pac-12's lowest-ranked defense. And then there is the Apple Cup at Washington, which is reeling again this year after three consecutive losses.

But after playing for eight straight weeks, the Cougars are just looking forward to some time off. Halliday said he "is pretty beat up" and that the breaks are well timed.

Sophomore left tackle Gunnar Eklund shared similar sentiments.

"We're definitely going to take care of our bodies in the bye weeks coming up," he said. "It's going to help us a lot, I think."

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