Cougs’ maddening inconsistency strikes again

THE SCRIPT HAS been different during each painstaking setback for Washington State’s football team this season. But the common denominator — an inability to close out opponents — remained the same during the Cougars’ 52-31 loss Saturday at No. 13 Arizona State.

During losses against Rutgers and California, WSU (3-8 overall, 2-6 conference) was derailed by defensive and special-teams breakdowns. Neither was an issue against the Sun Devils. Sure, there was the botched first-quarter punt and the secondary surrendered some explosive plays — three receivers had receptions that went for at least 20 yards — but look no further than the offense for this loss.

Redshirt freshman Luke Falk made just his second career start and unlike his impressive performance during the Cougars’ 39-32 win Nov. 8 at Oregon State, his inexperience showed. While Falk completed 45 of 74 passes for 601 yards and three touchdowns, he also accounted for all five of WSU’s turnovers. The Sun Devils took full advantage of the four interceptions and a fumble, scoring 35 points off his miscues.

Those breakdowns ruined an impressive early performance by the Cougars’ defense. The front seven swarmed and harassed senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who was sacked five times in the opening quarter. Through the second-to-last play of the opening quarter, ASU produced negative-27 yards of total offense. Kache Palacio, Destiny Vaeao, Daniel Ekulele, Xavier Cooper and Darryl Paulo each had a sack.

It was enough to put WSU in position to claim its first win at Sun Devil Stadium since 2001. With a 21-14 lead late in the first half, the Cougars had an opportunity to claim a two-score lead at the intermission. Instead, Falk’s pass was tipped and intercepted by defensive end Marcus Hardison, who returned it 12 yards to WSU’s 13-yard line. Kelly connected with Frederick Gammage to tie the game, 21-all, two plays later.

But the Cougars still managed to take a 24-21 lead when senior Isiah Myers corralled a 50-yard reception that enabled junior Quentin Breshears to kick a 27-yard field goal as time expired.

And WSU was set to receive the opening kickoff of the second half. The Cougars never could take advantage, though. They went three-and-out of their first possession and then wasted a fourth-down conversion on their next drive when Falk was intercepted by defensive back Kweishi Brown to give the Sun Devils (9-2, 6-2) possession at their own 30-yard line.

It was too much for an inexperienced WSU secondary to overcome.

Kelly immediately found Cameron Smith for a 67-yard completion to the Cougars’ 3. Two plays later, ASU took its first lead, 28-24, on a 1-yard run by D.J. Foster. It was the first score of a second half where the Sun Devils outscored WSU 31-7.

“I think we’ve got to overcome adversity,” WSU coach Mike Leach said during a postgame radio interview. “One, we can’t turn the ball over. And if we do, we can’t feel sorry for ourselves on the next drive.”

Leach’s first point is important. Interceptions are a byproduct of the “Air Raid” system, where Cougars’ quarterbacks regularly throw 60 passes in a game. But consider that quarterback Connor Halliday, who sustained a season-ending injury Nov. 1 against USC, threw at least three interceptions in a contest three times last season. WSU lost all of those games.

“I turned it over way too many times, which is on me,” said Falk, whose team outgained ASU 622-330.

Particularly not in close games. The Cougars took possession with more than 14 minutes remaining trailing 31-24 after Zane Gonzalez connected on a 47-yard field goal. On their next three drives, Falk lost a fumble on a snap, threw an interception and failed to convert on fourth-and-1 at his own 32.

In about 11 minutes, WSU went from a one-score deficit to trailing 52-24.

“I thought we started out well and toward the end there would be a stupid mistakes,” Falk said. “It killed drives and ultimately killed the game.”

Consider it part of the learning process. Two weeks ago, CF.C’s message boards compared Falk to “A Who’s Who of WSU Quarterbacking History.” He was favorably regarded to the winningest signal-caller in WSU history, Jason Gesser. Or, in the eyes of some, the former No. 2 overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, Ryan Leaf, was a better example of how successful Falk can become. That happens when a quarterback looks nearly flawless — he completed 44 of 61 passes for 471 yards and five touchdowns — in his first start at OSU.

On Saturday, Falk looked, well, human. His youth showed.

“There were times out there where I was thinking about the last play,” Falk said.

It was another example of the inconsistency that has plagued all three of the Cougars’ units throughout the season.

And the difference between a bowl team and one that stays home during the postseason.

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