Cougs must master 'major college football'

IT IS AMAZING how quickly descriptives change in sports. For Washington State, that is not good. A defense that once was called stout again was porous during the Cougars' 55-21 loss Thursday against Arizona State at Martin Stadium. It would be unfair to pin WSU's setback solely on that side, though. The Cougars (4-5 overall, 2-4 Pac-12) were awful in several aspects of the game.

On offense alone, WSU struggled to protect and several receivers dropped passes as junior quarterback Connor Halliday completed 29 of 54 passes for 300 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

"You've got to make that catch," Halliday said during a postgame radio interview. "I've got to make that throw. You've got to make that block. It's major college football."

But the Cougars survived that offensive inconsistency early in the season. During their 10-7 win Sept. 7 at USC, senior cornerback Damante Horton scored WSU's only touchdown on a 70-yard interception return with 27 seconds left in the first half. Two weeks later, the Cougars secured their first shutout in a decade with a 42-0 rout of Idaho.

Even with WSU's offensive flaws, it appeared the team's ball-hawking defense might be good enough to propel the program to its first bowl since 2003. But that changed during the Cougars' 55-17 loss Sept. 28 against Stanford at CenturyLink Field. It marked the start of WSU allowing at least 52 points in four of its next five contests. The only outlier came Oct. 5 in a 44-22 victory at hapless California, which might go winless in conference play.

Earlier in the season, the Cougars' defense found a way to get themselves out of difficult predicaments. WSU nearly found a way to overcome Halliday's three interceptions during its 31-24 season-opening loss at Auburn. But against the Sun Devils (6-2, 4-1), that unit provided little resistance.

AS QUICKLY AS WSU went three-and-out on three of its first four drives, ASU jumped out to a 21-0 lead. Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly completed 22 of 31 passes for 275 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Perhaps no moment better accentuated the Cougars' changing fortunes in the secondary than when Horton tipped a pass that somehow was corralled by Richard Smith for a 51-yard touchdown to give the Sun Devils a 28-7 lead in the second quarter.

More disappointing was the Cougars' shoddy tackling. Quarterbacks sometimes found success against WSU early in the season, but not many teams successfully ran against them. Led by senior Marion Grice, who had 94 yards on 18 carries, ASU had 282 yards on 57 carries.

"They had a really explosive offense tonight," junior defensive lineman Toni Pole said. "What we could've done better is stay focused."

Of course, the same logic could be applied to several wide receivers who could not corral Halliday's passes. On WSU's second drive from its own 7-yard line, junior Kristoff Williams dropped a pass that would have been a first down. The Cougars trailed 7-0 at the time.

"We get that first down, we get to feeling good about ourselves and we go down there and score," Halliday said. "You've got to step up and do it."

Again, that also could apply to special teams. Surrendering one fake punt is bad enough. Two is inexcusable. But that is exactly what happened in the third quarter.

"Obviously it's deflating, but we've got to find a way to get past that," Halliday said.

The result seemed to leave the players perplexed. Halliday said that leading up to the game, the Cougars had their best week of practice in his time in Pullman, while Pole contends the program still is improving.

But without strong defensive play, WSU looks like little more than a team that can beat nonconference and Pac-12 lightweights.

"It's not showing up on the scoreboard," Pole said. "We've got to find a way to take the next step."

The Cougars can only hope to find some solutions during their upcoming bye week before they play Nov. 16 at Arizona.

"The bottom line is we've got three games to win," Halliday said. "We've got to realize that mentality."

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