Anatomy of a disaster in the New Mexico Bowl

THE COUGARS HELD a clinic in Albuquerque on the two things that matter most when salting away a win – time management and ball security. But it was a clinic -- nay, a master class -- of what not to do. We detail and provide context on the five plays that spelled crimson doom, left Cougar Nation in a state incredulity and mumbling Bah Humbug! ahead of Christmas Day.

An incomplete pass
At the end of the first half and facing third-and-21 with forty-two seconds left, Connor Halliday tossed an incompletion. A run play would have forced CSU to use their final timeout. Instead, WSU all but gifted the Rams a field goal -- which turned out to be the winning margin.

By the way, WSU took possession with less than a minute remaining and three straight pass attempts later were punting from their own end zone. The first two pass attempts made sense, there was enough time for WSU to get in their own field goal attempt, at the least. But how often do you convert third-and-21? To stop the clock for CSU on the third-down incompletion was insult to injury, and CSU set up ship on the Cougar 40-yard line.

A zone-read option
And this is the key point here: Rickey Galvin's first down grab was the game-winner. It was. No really, it was. But somehow, it inexplicably wasn't.

With CSU out of timeouts and WSU leading 45-37, Halliday snapped the ball with 2:07 left and ran a keeper. A zone-read run? By Halliday? Really? Halliday fumbled but his knee hit the ground just before the ball was ripped loose and replay overturned the call.

But that still doesn't explain why Halliday is the ballcarrier in that situation. Further, it doesn't explain why anyone is the ballcarrier in that situation.

Between the 40-second play clock and the time it takes to run a play, WSU could have kneeled on the ball, with Halliday taking a few extra moments before taking that knee. The absolute worst scenario, with CSU out of timeouts, is that the Cougs would have punted and maybe, maybe CSU has time for a play, maybe two, and likely at their own 30-yard line and down by eight.

More probable is this: WSU may have been able to run out the clock completely.

When asked post-game if he regretted not running out more clock, Mike Leach made it absolutely clear he did not.

Back to the play -- if Halliday checked to the zone-read, Leach needs to revisit how much freedom he gives his quarterback to make play calls based on defensive alignment. (And by the way, the fact the DE stayed right at home means Halliday should have absolutely bellied the ball to his running back anyway.)

If Leach called for a read-option in that situation, it would be fascinating to hear his thought process. But Leach decided not to show up on the post-game radio show, much to host Bud Nameck's chagrin. And his answer to a question on time management led to more questions.

Another clock problem
After replay gave the Cougs the ball back, Halliday snapped it with the game clock running and 25 seconds left on the play clock.

1)Halliday should know that the clock starts on the ready for play signal in that situation but in the heat of such a moment, a WSU assistant coach or Leach himself should have reminded him anyway. That that didn't happen was surprising, to say the least. And the Cougs still had another bite at that apple.

The referee announced it. The whole stadium was privy to the fact that the ball would start on the ready for play signal.

And yet still, the ball was hiked with twenty-one seconds on the play clock. That's a difficult thing to fathom when it comes to clock management, and whether Leach wants to acknowledge it, answer the question, or not.

Followed by another fumble, and this one counts
Jeremiah Laufasa had the ball ripped out of his hands on that very play. He had two hands on the ball at the time but the pigskin was nevertheless pried loose. CSU scored a TD, converted the 2-point conversion and incredibly, the game was tied.

The linebacker made a good play there in forcing and recovering the fumble. But you just can't allow a fumble in that situation – go down and avoid contact or keep a better purchase on the ball, something, anything. Still, it was Laufasa's first carry of the game but more importantly, WSU would never have been in position to fumble had WSU earlier worked the clock properly.

Fumble 2.0, the one that crushed WSU's flickering hopes
WSU and CSU were now tied, and the Cougars were no doubt shell shocked. But there were still thirty-three seconds left on the clock. A decent kickoff return, a few Halliday passes – from a guy who has already tossed 6 TDs -- and it's not hard to see a WSU win.

Gain some quick yards through the air, something WSU has done consistently on Saturday, and there're more than a decent chance to send out unflappable Andrew Furney and he wins this sucker from long range, (45-50 yards), even though you're against a bit of a zephyr.

But the Cougar offense never took the field. Teondray Caldwell took what appeared no more than a decent tap on the ball and fumbled on the kickoff return. CSU recovered on the WSU 24-yard line and the outcome was sealed.

Still, it must be emphasized that this fumble would have never taken place has WSU taken the kneel-down approach detailed earlier in this article.

Epilogue: WSU in Leach's second year got to a bowl game, and that is big. And the Cougs now need to continue to recruit -- especially to both the offensive and defensive lines -- bigger, more athletic and better players. But Saturday in Albuquerque also revealed the biggest room for improvement on the 2014 Cougars might -- for coaches and players both -- be found between the ears.

Honorable mention to the five: Leach called a timeout before the CSU 2-point conversion attempt that tied the game. And that gave the Rams time to come up with their absolute best 2-point option, a statue of liberty play. While no one can be sure CSU's 2-point call wouldn't have been successful anyway, giving CSU time to talk it over and to come up with that best option was, arguably, just one more clock management gaffe by WSU over the final minutes.

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