Cougs land in the Nightmare Before Christmas

THERE IS SOME good news for Washington State faithful after Saturday's incomprehensible 48-45 loss against Colorado State in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. The Cougars are not scheduled to play Colorado or CSU next year. After both schools mounted improbable comeback wins against the Cougars in two consecutive seasons, that news comes as a relief.

The result only can be described as sickening. When WSU blew an 18-point lead last year to hand Colorado its only win of the season, it was described as growing pains in coach Mike Leach's first season. But after capturing conference road wins at USC and Arizona, and playing potential national champion Auburn close in the season opener, it felt like the Cougars were beyond blowing a 15-point lead with less than three minutes remaining against a less talented Mountain West team.

Instead, WSU (6-7) showcased baffling game management in Albuquerque after junior quarterback Connor Halliday's fumble was overturned. It is difficult to discern why Halliday would not take a knee with just 2:01 remaining and the Rams (8-6) out of timeouts. But WSU appeared to escape that decision — at least until the ensuing play. With more than 20 seconds remaining on the play clock, the Cougars snapped the ball and handed it to Jeremiah Laufasa, who was stripped by senior Shaquil Barrett and recovered at WSU's 33-yard line.

Eight plays later, Kapri Bibbs rushed for a 1-yard run and Donnell Alexander converted a two-point conversion on a Statue of Liberty play to tie the game, 45-all, with 33 seconds remaining.

And that is when ball security again eluded the Cougars.

Sophomore Teondray Caldwell took the kickoff 22 yards before fumbling it, which was recovered by CSU's Jake Schlager at WSU's 24. Three plays later, Jared Roberts kicked a 41-yard field goal to secure the victory. Instead of celebrating their first winning record since 2003, WSU now finishes with its ninth losing mark in 10 seasons.

"We just didn't finish," said WSU senior safety Deone Bucannon, who was the only player or coach interviewed on the postgame radio show. "It's plain and simple. They wanted it more than us."

It did not look that way during the first half. Instead, it appeared the Cougars' senior class that suffered through chronic losing and a coaching change would end their collegiate careers on a positive note. It also looked like junior Theron West, who only had one carry this season entering the game, was poised to emerge as a breakout star.

WEST SPUN AWAY from at least one defender on third-and-3 for a 12-yard gain to the Rams' 25. Three plays later, Halliday found true freshman River Cracraft for a 25-yard touchdown pass to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. On CSU's next possession, West blocked a punt to give WSU the ball at the Rams' 5. The Cougars translated that into a 14-0 lead when Halliday connected with sophomore Gabe Marks on a 1-yard touchdown pass. Later in the first quarter, West scored his first touchdown on a 28-yard pass from Halliday to give WSU a 21-7 lead.

It was all a part of a record-setting first half for the Cougars as they became the first team in the eight-year history of the Gildan New Mexico Bowl to score 35 points in the first 30 minutes. But even then, WSU displayed some frustrating game-management issues. After Bibbs scored on a 1-yard run with 59 seconds left in the first half to reduce the Rams' deficit to 35-20, Halliday threw a pair of incompletions sandwiched by a sack. A short punt by junior Wes Concepcion set up CSU at the Cougars' 40 with 30 seconds left. It was just enough time for quarterback Garrett Grayson to drive down to the 13 before Jared Roberts kicked a 30-yard field goal to end the half.

Coaching. Offense. Defense. Special teams.

There was no aspect of the game where the Cougars played well enough.

THE DEFENSE surrendered 595 yards of total offense and four different Rams had either a run or reception that went at least 51 yards. Even in coordinator Mike Breske's opportunistic defense, that is far too many explosive plays.

Even in November wins at Arizona and Utah, the Cougars surrendered too many big plays and allowed both teams to stay in the game. In the case of the Wildcats, the victory only was secured when quarterback B.J. Denker threw an incompletion on fourth down at WSU's 13.

The Cougars finally were victimized by their inability to close out teams.

While the defense could not stop explosive plays, the offense had trouble finding them. WSU's only 50-yard play — a 75-yard touchdown pass from Halliday, who completed 37 of 58 passes for 410 yards, six touchdowns and one interception, to junior Kristoff Williams in the first quarter — was negated by a holding penalty.

For those reasons, it should come as no surprise that Leach's staff is trying to gain commitments from some four-star recruits to upgrade the skill position talent to close out the Cougars' signing class.

But more important will be the manner that the returning players respond.

Last year, the Cougars took turned their shocking 31-28 Apple Cup win into a momentum-building offseason. Can they treat adversity the same way?

After all, WSU needs to find a way to finish games if it hopes to take the step from mediocre to an upper-echelon Pac-12 team.

Cougfan Top Stories