Cougars suffering the third-year jinx?

LEGENDARY basketball coach Dick Bennett often said the third year always was the most difficult in the rebuilding process. If the first two weeks of this football season are any indication, the Cougars are following that script in painful detail. Mike Leach’s third season on the Palouse is shaping up in calamitous fashion as the Cougs fell to 0-2 Friday in a desultory 24-13 setback at Nevada.

There appears to be little carryover from last season’s bowl berth.

If last week’s 41-38 loss against Rutgers damaged the Cougars’ bowl prospects, this game was a dagger to the heart. The Cougs were bigger than their Mountain West foe and universally favored. Yet they never led once despite outgoing the Pack by more than 100 yards.

To advance to the post season, WSU would have to defeat Portland State next weekend and then finish at least 5-4 in the Pac-12. Contests with Oregon, Stanford and USC — not to mention a deep middle class in the conference — suggest the post season is more fantasy than reality.

Perhaps the first warning came last week when Leach said his players still have not figured out how to win.

Friday night in Reno reinforced his assessment. While Halliday completed 38 of 57 passes for 389 yards, he was intercepted twice, one of them setting up Nevada's first TD. The Cougs also were flagged 10 times for 72 yards, while kicker A HREF=//>Erik Powell missed field goal attempts of 37 and 38 yards, and the defense failed to generate a single turnover.

Powell's misses were deflating, because one would have given WSU it's first lead, at 16-14, and the other would have kept them within striking distance at the end. After the first miss, Nevada QB Cody Fajardo led his team on a 14-play drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown run by Kendell Jackson to extend the Wolf Pack’s lead to 21-10 early in the fourth period.

When Leach needed a kicker on the Cougars’ ensuing drive, he turned to Quentin Breshears, a former Fresno State starter, who converted a 38-yard kick.

“Based on what I saw, there’s a good chance we’ve got a new field-goal kicker,” Leach said during a postgame radio interview.

But this was the epitome of a team loss. On WSU’s second-to-last possession with an 11-point deficit, the Cougars had the ball at their own 41-yard line and a second-and-3 situation. Halliday, who was without favorite target Cracraft, misfired on consecutive passes. Jamal Morrow then was stopped for a 2-yard run.

Cracraft, whose absence also affected the kicking game because he is the No. 1 holder, was out with an undisclosed injury.

“I think missing River really hurt,” Halliday said. “He’s kind of my guy — kind of my security blanket.”

The issue extends beyond Cracraft, though. Nevada’s defense, which produced four sacks, harassed and hit Halliday from the get-go. And, before all four field-goal attempts, WSU was inside the red zone before penalties, drops and other failures stalled those drives.

“Frustrating,” said Halliday, who guided the Cougars to just 5 third-down conversions in 15 tries.. “We’re just not playing as a team right now. Sometimes I’ll miss a read. Sometimes it’s a false start. We’re just not playing as 11 right now.”

Leach shared similar sentiments.

“We’ve got to finish drives,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

One solution might be as simple as incorporating the running backs into the offense. During fall camp, assistant coach Jim Mastro said that unit was as talented as any he has coached. But Morrow and Theron West combined for just 10 carries and 61 yards against the Wolf Pack.

There is one certainty: without adjustments and improved execution, WSU appears poised to experience the dreaded third-year jinx. Right now, hope that the rebuild works just as well as Bennett’s provides little solace to long-suffering Cougar fans.

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