Cougars make a loud, clear statement

College football coaches are loathe to talk about moral victories. But Washington State made a statement with Saturday’s 38-31 loss in its conference opener Saturday before a boisterous, sellout crowd against No. 2 Oregon at Martin Stadium.

The Cougars have the ability to compete with any team in the Pac-12.

That is a point that not even the biggest crimson-hued zealot could have made after WSU (1-3 overall, 0-1 conference) opened its season with losses against Rutgers and Nevada. But look no further than Saturday's statistics. The Cougars produced nearly identical (499 to 501) yards of total offense versus the Ducks. Their 29 first downs were seven more than Oregon. And WSU's defensive line dominated Oregon for a large portion of the game, collecting seven sacks of Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota.

“I thought we took a step this week,” WSU coach Mike Leach said during a postgame radio interview. “We played and battled every play. It’s a foundation we can build on.”

The offense showed that its school-record 706 yards of total offense a week ago against Portland State was not a fluke. Against substantially better competition, a youthful offensive line grew up. Connor Halliday, who completed 43 of 63 passes for 436 yards and four touchdowns, had plenty of time to run through his progressions with the exception of the last play, when he was sacked by Tony Washington on fourth-and-13 at Oregon’s 38-yard line.

“I had a chance to get Rickey Galvin on a corner route,” said Halliday of the final play. “It would’ve been a tough throw. I didn’t see the guy that hit me.

“Frustrating.”

That also could aptly describe the previous play, where the Ducks should have been flagged for pass interference against Isiah Myers. That would have given the Cougars a first down at the Ducks’ 23 with the possibility of sending the game into overtime.

“I thought I played it pretty good,” Halliday said. “The [defensive back] might have been a little early, but I didn’t see that.”

What others saw was tangible progress. A year ago, the Cougars trailed Oregon by 38 points before the Ducks’ coaches did mass substitutions during the second half. Leach stuck with Halliday, who attempted a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 89 passes, earning the ire of then-Ducks’ defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who called the move “low class” in his team’s 62-38 victory.

This time, there was no consternation over play-calling as Mariota was needed for every snap to avoid the upset. And credit for that does not just rest with the offense. WSU held the Ducks’ backfield, which features former five-star recruit Royce Freeman, to a pedestrian 4.1 yards per carry.

“I just think being consistent,” said defensive lineman Xavier Cooper when asked about the unit’s improvement. “If I can do that, we will win every game. I can promise that.”

It was not just the defensive line, though. Jeremiah Allison, who replaced Tana Pritchard as the starting weakside linebacker, infused speed into the defense. Allison and middle linebacker Darryl Monroe finished with a team-high 10 tackles. True freshman defensive back Sulaiman Hameed displayed speed and vision when he hit wide receiver Keanon Lowe for no gain on Oregon’s opening drive of the second half.

The Cougars’ defense has room for development, as was displayed during the Ducks’ first three touchdown drives that lasted just a collective two minutes. But the infusion of talent from Leach recruits, such as Allison and Hameed, is obvious. It also is notable that Leach’s latest class did not include a junior-college transfer. In addition to Hameed, by CF.C’s count only cornerback Patrick Porter and wide receiver Calvin Green have played this season as true freshmen.

In February, coaches won several recruiting battles against the likes of Arizona State and Oregon State — not Portland State and Weber State. And WSU’s next recruiting class — those that see the trajectory of a program coming off a bowl appearance and the state-of-the-art football operations building — looks even better.

But WSU showed that the conversation about its football program does not have to rest on the future. Perhaps with the correct focus, continued maturation and four more games at Martin Stadium, the Cougars have time to turn their season around.

Just as long as they capitalize on the opportunity — one Halliday felt was missed against the Ducks (4-0, 1-0).

“This would’ve been huge for our program,” he said. “This would’ve been huge for me personally.”


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