Cougars continue to hold themselves back

IT SHOULD HAVE been the culmination to an unforgettable game. Washington State senior quarterback Connor Halliday set a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 734 passing yards. But he and his teammates fell 1-yard short when junior kicker Quentin Breshears missed a 19-yard field goal wide right on third down and the Cougars fell 60-59 during homecoming Saturday against California at Martin Stadium.

The loss, which could rival any of the biggest disappointments in program history, left a series of questions. Why were the Cougars (2-4 overall, 1-2 Pac-12) left with only one timeout in a game that appeared destined to come down to the final possession? Why try running on consecutive plays on second- and third-and-goal when Connor Halliday has completed 49 of 70 passes and the running game is inexperienced and ineffective? And why place the game into the hands of an unreliable kicker?

All of it overshadowed what should be a celebration. There was Halliday’s record-setting performance. There were three receivers — Vince Mayle (263), River Cracraft (172) and Dom Williams (107) — that produced more than 100 receiving yards. And, most importantly, the Cougars would have built on the momentum they established during their 28-27 win Sept. 27 at Utah and seized sole possession of first-place in the Pac-12 North Division. Instead, that distinction falls to the Golden Bears (4-1, 2-1).

For the second consecutive week, California came up with a goal-line stop to stymie a Pac-12 opponent. Last week, it was a 59-56 double-overtime win against Colorado. WSU drove to the Bears’ 4-yard line on a 17-yard reception by Vince Mayle to set up first-and-goal. Redshirt freshman running back Gerard Wicks then fell just short of the goal line on a run. But Mike Leach — the most pass-happy coach in a program that has been defined by its quarterback play — instead turned to Wicks again. He was stopped for a 1-yard loss and rather than running another play, Leach called a timeout on third down with 19 seconds remaining.

“We’ve got to take control of that and get into the end zone,” Halliday said during a postgame radio interview. “Gerard has to get one more yard and our offensive line has to get more push.”

For as bold as Leach has been throughout his career, including going for it on fourth-and-20 at Utah and on the Cougars’ successful onside kick in the third quarter that translated into a touchdown and a 38-27 lead, he played to the program’s weaknesses. WSU does not have an established short-yardage running game and when Tristan Vizcaino reneged on his verbal commitment to sign with Washington, the Cougars were left with a cast of unknowns to replace Andrew Furney. Relying on those players, except in situations where no other options are available, defies common sense.

But there are plenty to share in blame. Eric Russell had an impeccable record as a special-teams coach during several career stops, including Tennessee. Despite that, there have been too many special-teams breakdowns in his three seasons at WSU. That continued against California where Trevor Davis returned kickoffs 100 and 98 yards for scores after Cougars’ touchdowns in the third quarter.

Responsibility also rests on the players. WSU’s offense was prolific, but far from perfect. While the defense forced Bears’ punts on their first three possessions, the Cougars could not take advantage. After Mayle scored on a 90-yard touchdown reception, WSU started its next two drives at California’s 45. Breshears made a 45-yard field goal on the first and the Cougars were forced to punt on the second.

While it would be preposterous to suggest the Cougars could have put a game out of reach where 1,401 yards of total offense was produced, it would have placed the Bears in a difficult predicament. WSU missed another opportunity when it drove to California’s 34 late in the first half when Halliday misfired on a fourth-and-8 pass to River Cracraft. An accurate pass puts the Cougars in position to take a 31-10 halftime lead. Instead, Bears’ kicker James Langford made a 26-yard field goal to end the first half that reduced their deficit to 24-13.

At some point, if WSU aspires to make the jump from the Pac-12’s lower or middle class to the top under Leach, it must begin put opponents away. The defense helped put the Cougars in position to upset then-No. 2 Oregon last month and the Utes through relentless pressure. But Jared Goff, who completed 37 of 53 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns, was not sacked or intercepted. He needed just four plays to find Davis for the go-ahead 51-yard touchdown with 3 minutes, 18 seconds, remaining.

It culminated with the unthinkable — WSU lost despite producing a school-record 812 yards of total offense. That is nothing more than white noise at this point, though.

The only pertinent numbers are the Cougars’ continued failure to win at Martin Stadium, where Leach has a 2-7 conference mark in three seasons, and a record that has them on the cusp on missing a bowl for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons. Their latest meltdown has put them in a must-win position at Stanford, where the math also is decidedly against WSU. The Cougars have not won since 2007 at Stanford.

“I think you’ve got to make sure everyone realizes this is a big-time must win,” Halliday said. “Palo Alto always is a tough place to play.”

That is their nightmare reality.

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