Youth not an excuse for Cougars’ struggles

PULLMAN — Washington State football players frequently conveyed one message during Monday’s new conference: youth is not an issue. The larger issues behind the Cougars’ struggles, they said, are related to confidence and playing too loosely.

“Especially with the younger guys, this is their first time being in front of so many people and under the lights like this, and then you bring along a name like Arizona or USC, the teams they grew up watching, they want to make sure everything they do is what’s written on the paper,” junior linebacker Jeremiah Allison said. “We have to break them out of that shell and just allow them to have fun and play their game, which got them here.”

None of the players questioned the team’s effort and all believe they remained focused on winning their final four games, which is necessary to qualify for a second consecutive bowl. Yet, the confidence to do so needs to be present, Connor Halliday said, and it needs to start by not fearing the tradition-laden Trojans on Saturday. He said the players need to believe they have the talent to stop the big names on the USC roster.

According to Halliday, the younger players are fearful of making errors and incurring the wrath of coaches.

“We’ve got some guys that are 17, 18, 19 years old out there that are going to make mistakes, and everybody realizes that, but make them going 100 miles an hour with their hair on fire,” Halliday said. “Those mistakes can be corrected. The mistakes where people are hesitant, scared to make a tackle, or scared to make a play, those ones are tough to fix.”

The team can’t enter the game like full-on maniacs, though. Allison said the Cougars need to enter the game calm and focused on doing their jobs because they have been too frantic this season.

“If you’re not confident, and you’re just looking at the guy across from you and you feel like he’s going to do his job better than you’re going to do your job, you’ve already lost,” Vince Mayle said.

Speaking of losses, it’s no secret that the team has six of them in eight games this season. The team is taught not to dwell on their failures nor their successes, but he mantra of moving on to the next play and not focusing on the last game may not be working as well as it could with this team.

“We move on from the game a little bit too fast,” Allison said. “I know no one is supposed to dwell on the game for that long, but when it was a loss, it should hurt you and you should come back inspired to never want to taste that taste anymore.”

While the Cougars’ record can no longer be characterized as a slow start, the way their offense begins games can be described that way.

Mike Leach said he thought the Cougars started slow against Arizona, falling behind 31-0 before scoring their first points. Halliday somberly admitted that such a deficit was a slap in the face.

With Halliday leading the nation in passing yards (3,833) and with three receivers who have put up at least 690 yards, this offense can score. In fact, Leach said this team has made definite strides in moving the ball on offense, and just haven’t been doing it as consistently as they should. The numbers the offense has produced this season have impressed Leach because they have done so with a fairly young group, too, he said.

Leach said the defense has had a revolving door in the secondary that has prevented that unit from developing a cohesive group capable of forcing turnovers. That has partially negated the prolific offense the Cougars have this season.

Yet, the players are not using youth as an excuse. Mayle said he doesn’t look at players in terms of age or experience, but instead expects them to go out and compete.

“We went in (on Saturday) with a lot of younger guys, and we have to stop telling them that they are freshmen, and tell them they are football players,” Mayle said. “There’s freshmen across the country making types of plays like that all year.”

The point that came across on Monday was that it is a mere matter of inner belief and will to win, despite all odds. The odds are certainly stacked against the Cougars with four games remaining against the likes of USC, Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington.

“I think we’re a talented team that’s really close that needs to believe that we are that close, and believe that this, in Lewiston, was a team that I believed should have won 8, 9, 10 games, and realize we have the talent to do that,” said Halliday, referring to fall camp. “Now we’ve got some younger guys out there and they need to believe that too.”

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