5 Takeaways from Cougs vs. Trojans

PULLMAN -- The 2-7 Cougars lost the nation's leading passer to a broken leg Saturday, but they seemingly put a stranglehold on the national crown for most TDs surrendered via punt and kickoff returns. USC standout Nelson Agholor's first quarter sprint to paydirt following a Jordan Dascalo punt marked the sixth TD return the Cougs have given up this season. That's the most in the country.

And it is the centerpiece of the first of our five takeaways from Saturday's 44-17 loss.

Agholor's circuitous, 65-yard route to the end zone was a case study in missed tackles and lack of lane discipline. It also marked the second-straight week the Cougs have spotted their opponent a 7-0 lead as the result of a special teams breakdown. “We’re improving. We’re improving slightly, but we’re not very good at it. We’re going to have to work on punting the ball out of bounds, clearly,” WSU head coach Mike Leach said.

Coming into this weekend's games, just 25 of the 125 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision had been torched via punt return. Of them, just two had given up more than one. After today, WSU is alone at three. Similarly, with kickoff returns, only 18 of the 125 FBS teams had been victimized via kickoff return coming into the weekend -- 15 of them surrendering one, two giving up two, and just one -- WSU -- allowing three.

Backup quarterback Luke Falk (pictured above) was scrambling a lot in the face of USC's formidable rush when he came on in relief of injured Connor Halliday and wound up being sacked three times. But Falk did an exceptional job moving around in the pocket and tossed for 370 yards. He also wasn't afraid to tuck and run for a few yards, which probably exposed his biggest weakness: his sliding skills need serious work. “It was nice to get out in the action. I haven’t really gotten hit since my senior year of high school but we work with Coach Harrell all the time on pocket presence, and it just came into play tonight,” Falk said.

The Cougar D was excellent in closing out the Trojans on third down Saturday, limiting them to just two conversions in 11 third-down chances. Alas, the problems for the Cougs came on first and second downs. The Trojans’ longest scoring drive of the game lasted eight plays, and was actually extended by a fourth-down conversion. The rest of the scoring efforts were short and sweet for the Trojans. Except for a field goal on fourth down, every USC score came on first or second down.

The Cougars aren’t dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in turnovers gained, but they are very close. There are only three teams worse than the Cougars in this category, and there are five more teams tied with Washington State at seven turnovers forced this season. On the season, WSU's turnover margin is minus-10. On Saturday, the turnover battle was very costly for the Cougs. The Trojans capitalized on two out of their three takeaways, scoring 14 points off them. On the bright side, the Cougars scored a touchdown after they forced a fumble in the fourth quarter.

Cougar corner Daquawn Brown is not waving any white flags. “This is a tough loss right here," he said yesterday. "It just shows we didn’t put in enough work, as we thought we did, to be the team we thought we were going to be this year. It’s bad for the bowl game, but it’s not bad for the rest of the season. I look at it as a three-game season now. We just go into a three-game win streak and look for the bright spots in what we can do moving into next season.”

According to Leach, one of the Cougars' biggest problems stems from being "all over the map" emotionally. They're too high on good plays, too down on bad ones, he said. The team needs to buck up when confronted with adversity. "There’s always going to be adversity in football, and you’ve got to remain competitive,” Leach said. “Each individual play has got to be our own personal masterpiece, as opposed to rolling along. We’re just too up and down emotionally.”

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