Leach preaches patience in WSU's stunning win

WASHINGTON STATE COACH Mike Leach watched as the narrative unfolded before his eyes. And when he did not like the opening act during the Cougars’ dramatic 28-27 Pac-12 win Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, he changed the script. The rewrite was nothing more than getting back to basics, but that's all it took in wiping out a 21-point deficit.

After a slew of self-inflicted setbacks landed his team in a 21-0 hole, Leach called an impromptu team meeting on the sidelines.

“The important thing was to stay with it,” Leach said. “We dug our way out of the hole and won. Over half the teams I know would self-destruct in that situation.

“We took a step.”

That might be an understatement. After all, with the possible exception of Colorado, no team in the Pac-12 has displayed more progress since the season began than the Cougars.

This is where the book on Leach becomes intriguing. At Texas Tech, Leach was known for his dominance at Jones AT&T Stadium. But at WSU — at least during the last two seasons — his teams have shown resilience on the road. Last year, the Cougars withstood late surges by USC and Arizona that sandwiched a blowout victory at California.

One common denominator in those wins: defense. While Leach’s name is synonymous with the “Air Raid” offense, the other side of the ball continues to put the Cougars (2-3 overall, 1-1 conference) in position to win away from Martin Stadium. Similar to last week’s narrow loss against No. 2 Oregon, the additions of athleticism and speed combined with the defensive changes was noticeable. Junior linebacker Jeremiah Allison, who was inserted as the starter at weakside linebacker versus Oregon, had a team-high 13 tackles.

Just as significant has been the development of redshirt freshman Charleston White, who serves as sophomore Daquawn Brown’s counterpart at cornerback. White replaced senior Tracy Clark, best remembered for surrendering a 78-yard touchdown on the opening play from scrimmage during a 41-38 loss Aug. 28 against Rutgers at CenturyLink Field.

The revamped secondary, which includes true freshman safety Sulaiman Hameed, held explosive Utes’ receiver Dres Anderson without a reception. White broke up a pair of long passes intended for Anderson, including Utah’s fourth-down pass with 1:04 remaining to secure the win.

It was not just the defensive backfield. For a second consecutive week, WSU harassed the opposing quarterback through pressure from its front seven. Travis Wilson completed just 18 of 38 passes for 165 yards and no touchdowns.

Outside of one breakdown, a 76-yard run by Devontae Booker that extended the Utes’ lead to 21-0 in the first quarter, the Cougars’ defense surrendered only 281 yards.

That effort — and some of Leach’s trademark aggressive play-calling — enabled WSU to awaken from its offensive slumber. Two Cougars’ touchdowns came on fourth down, including their first score during the second quarter. On that play, Halliday eluded a pass rusher and found junior Dom Williams for a 35-yard touchdown, cutting the Cougars’ deficit to 21-7 with 6:54 seconds remaining in the first half.

“How do you want to be remembered?” said Vince Mayle when reflecting on the question teammates possessed to themselves at halftime. “We didn’t want to be remembered as the team that got blown out. We wanted to be remembered as the team that won.”

Halliday, who completed 39 of 61 passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns, engineered the Cougars’ biggest comeback since they overcame a 27-6 halftime deficit to stun No. 1 UCLA, 34-30, in 1988. He also threw his 78th touchdown pass, which surpassed Alex Brink’s program record.

“To break records in a loss makes it feel worse,” Halliday said. “It’s one of the best wins I’ve been apart of here at WSU.”

The Cougars faced no shortage of adversity on their way. Junior Kache Palacio forced — and recovered — a Kaelin Clay fumble at WSU’s 39. Eight plays later, Halliday found Mayle, who finished with 120 yards on eight receptions, for an 11-yard touchdown pass.

But later, a Halliday fumble was recovered by Jason Fanaika at WSU’s 43, which set up a 43-yard Phillips’ field goal with 14:13 remaining in the game.

Undeterred, Halliday responded with a 12-play scoring drive. He twice found sophomore River Cracraft, who had a game-high 126 yards on nine receptions, for third-down conversions. The drive appeared to stall on fourth-and-14 at Utah’s 20.

Field goal? Not a chance.

Behind an offensive line that provided brilliant protection throughout most of the game, Halliday had time to find Dom Williams for the touchdown, reducing WSU’s deficit to 27-21 with 8:08 left.

The defense responded with a three-and-out that included stuffing Booker on third-and-1. That sequence set the scene for the Cougars to overcome their first-quarter nightmare. Three plays later, Mayle broke a tackle — and redshirt freshman receiver Robert Lewis delivered a crucial block — that sprung him for an 81-yard go-ahead touchdown with 4:58 remaining.

WSU’s defense, responsible for one touchdown as the Utes’ first two scores came on a Halliday interception and Clay punt return, then secured the win. White twice broke up passes intended for Anderson on fourth down.

“I thought our defensive guys did a good job,” Leach said. “They really only gave up seven points. I thought they played fast all day.”

The win also changes the script for the season. The Cougars have four home games remaining against flawed opponents, beginning next week against California. WSU’s bowl prospects now do not see as farfetched.

And that is as much a statement of the program’s evolution as anything.

“Just be resilient,” Halliday said. “I think that epitomizes my career here. We were down 24-7 and nobody wavered. Nobody freaked out.”

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