Woeful defense dooms Cougars in opener

SEATTLE — For the Washington State faithful, it was a scene more disheartening than all the empty seats Thursday night at CenturyLink Field. On the first play from scrimmage in WSU's season opener, Rutgers receiver Leonte Carroo rocketed past Cougar senior cornerback Tracy Clark and hauled in a 78-yard touchdown pass from Gary Nova.

WSU battled back, but notice had been served, and the favored Cougars lost 41-38 in front of a crowd generously pegged at 30,397 -- or about 37,000 short of a sellout.

You could faintly hear echoes in the stadium before the kickoff. After that first play from scrimmage the silence was defeafening.

Rather than a building block on last year’s first postseason appearance in a decade, this game felt like a continuation of the defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory ending at the 2014 New Mexico Bowl.

There were the defensive gaffes — too many to recount — and another stunning special-teams miscue — a killer in the fourth quarter — that negated senior quarterback Connor Halliday’s 532 passing yards and five touchdowns.

Halliday's work through the air appeared to be enough for third-year WSU coach Mike Leach to win his first opener as Cougars coach despite the breakdowns everywhere else.

But with a 38-34 lead and 7 minutes, 13 seconds left on the clock, Cougar sophomore receiver-turned-return man River Cracraft fumbled a punt near midfield that was recovered by Rutgers. A little less than four minutes later, the Scarlet Knights scored the game winner when Paul James scored on a 3-yard run.

The Cougar offense had a chance to put together its own drive to win it, but the effort died on downs at the WSU 38-yard-line with 53 seconds left.

Halliday took responsibility.

“A real tough loss,” he said. “You know Coach Leach and all our coaches are about building a legacy, well, legacies are born on a drive like that. We got the ball with two minutes and a chance to win it, and you know, we floundered. We dropped the ball ... we didn’t block up front, I had a bad check in one of them.”

And yes, the Cougars could have driven for a game-winning touchdown. But if WSU is going to perform better than its historical narrative — a team that scores points in bunches, but surrenders more — it needs much more out of its defense. For all of the discussion about youth, the Cougars’ starting front seven are all juniors and seniors. The struggles of an inexperienced secondary were expected, but watching Rutgers’ offensive line manhandle their counterparts was not. James broke myriad tackles en route to 173 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries for the Scarlet Knights.

WSU has been down this road before. There was the famed “RPM offense” of 1985 that produced a 4-7 record. Two decades later, quarterback Alex Brink teamed with future NFL running back Jerome Harrison and wide receiver Jason Hill to give the Cougars one of their best offenses in program history. But the result was another 4-7 record.

Rutgers at CenturyLink was a continuation of that narrative.

“It was a spotty performance,” Leach said. “It wasn’t that bad a performance, but it was a spotty performance, and we gave up way too many explosives.”

Especially for the experienced front seven. Outside of a sack by Xavier Cooper, who shared a sack with linebacker Ivan McLennan and had 1 1/2 tackles for loss, the defensive line put little pressure on Nova, who completed 16 of 27 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, to expose an overmatched secondary.

WSU’s failures in two-thirds of the game's components — defense and special teams — were too much to overcome. The Cougars spent most of the first half trying to dig out from those issues and trailed 21-17 at intermission.

“I think we squandered a third of the first half getting warmed up on offense,” Leach said. “I don’t think we ever established the line of scrimmage, and we were as sloppy as could be on special teams.”

Halliday gave WSU its first lead, 24-21, when he found Cracraft for a 7-yard pass with 12:27 left in the third quarter. But for all of the Cougars’ offensive successes — 10 receivers caught passes — their defense never put themselves in position to sustain momentum before Cracraft’s botched punt return. WSU surrendered 496 yards of total offense. That penned out to an average gain per play of 7.1 yards.

For their part, Leach and several players seemed calm afterward.

“When you know you're going to win, you're just going to take it through it, keep playing hard ... keep going,” senior wide receiver Vince Mayle said.

The Cougars will have an opportunity to take advantage of that with non-conference games at Nevada and then the Sept. 13 contest against Portland State at Martin Stadium.

“There were a lot of very positive things — and it’s all correctable,” Leach said. “We have to change that and expect more of ourselves.”

After all, in a conference loaded with veteran quarterbacks, WSU is going to need more — much more — to stave off a disappointing season.

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