Loss highlights Cougs’ recruiting issues

IT SEEMED LIKE a prudent plan at the time. But after Washington State was victimized by redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon during a 59-37 setback against No. 15 Arizona at Martin Stadium, it appears to be a miscalculation. Simply put, inexperience in the secondary in the Pac-12 is too much to overcome in a deep, balanced conference.

During his first two full recruiting classes at WSU, coach Mike Leach invested in the high-school ranks. In February, for the first time in memory, the Cougars did not sign a junior-college transfer. Perhaps that investment will translate into the sustained success WSU has not experienced since the early 2000s when those players mature.

But that blueprint has come at the present's expense.

The Cougars have wasted a record-setting season by senior quarterback Connor Halliday, who completed 56 of 79 passes for 489 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. It almost feels as if Halliday has to be perfect, which he was not against the Wildcats, for WSU to have an opportunity to succeed. And even that is not guaranteed as evidenced by the 60-59 loss against California on Oct. 4.

The previous coaching regime heavily recruited defensive backs in 2009-10. Safety Deone Bucannon turned into a first-round pick and a few others developed into solid players. But all three defensive backs signed in 2011 — Rahmel Dockery, Max Gama and Spencer Waseem — washed out and when Leach inherited the program from Paul Wulff, many players in the secondary were close to exhausting their eligibility.

It was an issue that needed to be addressed through an infusion of talent. Instead, WSU only signed one junior-college defensive back in 2013 — Paris Taylor, who later converted to linebacker — and had just one committed in its latest class. But when cornerback Joseph Turner was not going to be eligible until fall camp, he was told to seek out another school.

This secondary has held up about as well as the historic, dilapidated barn along the Palouse Scenic Byway. Based on ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating system, Solomon ranks eighth among Pac-12 signal-callers. He is seventh in the conference in the more traditional quarterback-rating statistic. In other words, Solomon is not elite.

That did not prevent him taking advantage of the Cougars’ secondary, though. Solomon helped his team take a 31-0 lead early in the second quarter when he found Cayleb Jones for a 3-yard touchdown pass. He completed 26 of 38 passes for 294 yards and five touchdowns. Five different Wildcats caught touchdown passes. Ten Arizona players caught passes.

“The biggest thing is I thought we came out of the week playing hard,” Leach said during a postgame radio interview. “The guys really wanted to win bad and were tentative. In most cases, I thought we made this game harder than it was.”

Arizona’s receiving corps, which might be the deepest and most talented in the Pac-12, deserves some credit for that as they made multiple NFL-caliber catches. But the Wildcats also are plenty capable in the backfield even with the graduation of Ka’Deem Carey, who now plays for the Chicago Bears. The final statistics were a little deceptive based on a 38-yard run during the second half by Terris Jones-Grigsby. Outside of that run, Arizona averaged only 3.4 yards per carry.

The front seven put the Wildcats in position to be one-dimensional. It did not help that WSU struggled to pressure Solomon — only junior linebacker Jeremiah Allison finished with a sack — but a secondary that started a pair of true freshmen, Sulaiman Hameed and Patrick Porter, was exposed.

Adding an impact junior-college transfer along the lines of Tyron Brackenridge would not have been enough to make the difference against the Wildcats, particularly in light of the continued breakdowns on special teams. After the Cougars went three-and-out on their first possession, Davonte’ Neal danced around at least four players en route to an 81-yard touchdown.

But envision an infusion of veteran talent in the secondary. WSU probably defeats Rutgers and California and perhaps finds a way to turn another setback into a victory. Even in a competitive Pac-12, the Cougars would be on the cusp of bowl eligibility for a second consecutive season.

Instead, WSU (2-6 overall, 1-4 conference) finds itself on the brink of taking a significant step backward. Even Halliday seemed to feel that.

“My time here is kind of running out,” Halliday said. “This kind of is the first time that has hit me.

“I think you’ve got to try and take advantage of the moment. We’ve got to figure out a way to win the next four.”

Halliday threw his 90th career touchdown pass during the game. When he found senior Isiah Myers for a 37-yard touchdown pass with 6 minutes, 36 seconds, left in the first half, he broke Alex Brink’s school career passing yards record of 10,913. Halliday finished the game with 11,264.

That is not the only shared link between Halliday and Brink. In addition to gaudy passing statistics, neither received any defensive support late in their tenure with the Cougars.

And both will finish their senior year without a bowl berth.

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