Blanchette: Enthusiasm is Leaching away now

WSU’s Cyrus Coen, top, brings down California’s C.J. Anderson during the Cougars’ 31-17 loss to the Bears in Pullman on Saturday night. (Tyler Tjomsland)

PULLMAN – Next at Washington State University: Empty Corpse Bobblehead Night.

Having exhausted the giddy buzz of a rock-star hire, whatever “whoa” jolt was felt from his recent trashing of a few team elders and the gimmick of a toy handout at the turnstiles, the only promotional card left for the Cougars is to combine all three, no?

Good thing the athletic director got the TV checks cashed and the stadium suites built before anyone got a load of this.

Speaking of TV, now that the Cougs are proven viewership killers in the 7:30 p.m. slot, can Pac-12 Networks find them a kickoff time either in daylight or after SNL’s mop-up sketches?

The last shreds of anticipation to this Wazzu football season – at least until any possible Apple Cup hijinx – wafted away on a stale breeze Saturday night in a 31-17 loss to California at Martin Stadium, at pretty much the same rate the 27,339 who found a seat made their way to the exits.

This was by any standard a winnable game. At least for a team with even a vague grasp of the concept.

That the Cougar players don’t have one is hardly a surprise, given the lack the recent history.

More alarming is that for all of his past achievements and abstract theorizing, the new ramrod, Mike Leach, has so far whiffed on making any inroads into their psyches on that score – never mind that this team isn’t discernably better now in execution and performance than it was a month ago.

Either too many people were kidding themselves, or Mr. Wizard needs more apt protégés than Tooter Turtle.

Here’s the sad bottom line:

Folks were sold on cirque-de-hooray offensive wonder. There have been nearly twice as many shutout quarters as double-digit ones.

They were sold on swashbuckling. It’s been mostly buckle.

They were sold on fun. There hasn’t been any.

And now there’s a question whether Leach’s call on a quarterback can be greeted with any particular confidence.

Early last week, Leach pushed his chips in with Connor Halliday, explaining quite reasonably that, “We’re at the point in the season where we have to invest the reps in somebody. We just have to make a choice.”

Less than eight minutes into Saturday’s calamity, Leach made a different choice.

In his new role as middle relief, Jeff Tuel performed admirably enough: throwing for 320 yards and two touchdowns. Sure, the red zone was still pretty radioactive for the Cougs even with Tuel under center and there were scads of opportunities wasted, but at least he avoided the killing turnover that has suddenly turned into Halliday’s trademark.

It’s been theorized that Halliday’s youth, growth potential and fearless gunslinger mentality have more appeal, but as gunslingers go, he’s taking on the look of the Schofield Kid from “Unforgiven.” Five starts this year, 10 interceptions.

“I don’t think it’s confidence,” Leach said. “I think it’s trying to make too much happen.”

Leach predictably didn’t commit to either quarterback in the midnight hour after the game, though his appreciation of Tuel certainly grew.

“I thought he played a pretty smart game,” Leach said. “I thought he went out and played polished right off the top, and I thought he got better as the game went on.”

Tuel has been nothing but a good soldier about the situation, given his seniority.

“I’m fine with it,” he said of coming off the bench. “It’s not the ideal situation. I love to play the game, so when my number’s called I’m going to do what I can do. If I just relax, I think good things will happen.”

Tuel did command some solid drives, but was also at the controls for the evening’s most frustrating moment for the Cougs: the second-quarter sequence when they snapped the ball eight times inside the Cal 8-yard line. Two of those were wiped out by penalties, two runs went nowhere, one receiver was missed and another dropped a touchdown pass. The final snap was a 20-yard field goal by Andrew Furney.

Leach isn’t convinced his players need to “rise to the occasion” in those situations.

“In our case, we need to relax and just make another play,” he said. “Most guys who are good in key situations have the ability to consistently play the same, not tighten up or try to make too much happen. We do a little of both.”

This is all a very delicate recipe Leach seems to be dialing up. His early week screed about “empty corpses” suggested he desires more fire; now everyone needs to relax. He now has a bye week to wring out more of whatever he wants, but the schedule beyond that doesn’t seem likely to produce better results, or more enthusiasm from the constituents than could be detected on Mike Leach Bobblehead Night.

“There might have been some people who turned them back in,” Leach allowed.

Or left shaking their own heads.

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