Leaf It To Cougs To Find Some Joy In Stinging Loss

What if you go to dig up a little dirt and find something already growing in it?

Something already in Leaf?

Such was the dilemma of yet another weird and wonderful day of Washington State football Saturday. Consistent with the school’s own eccentric tradition, the Cougars played perhaps their most entertaining 60 minutes of the season in front of next to nobody, and suffered a 36-24 loss to Stanford that served as a final stinging insult to a snakebit senior class.

So why did it feel like rebirth?

Maybe any team on a five-game slide has a penchant for looking at acorns and visualizing oaks, but Wazzu’s ongoing losing streak didn’t seem to be weighing on the Cougars quite as heavily as it might - and with good reason.

The kid, once and for all, is all right.

“It’s the beginning of the something,” said Ryan Leaf. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But maybe it’s the beginning of something good.”

Maybe. Or maybe it’s the beginning of something great. But given the fallout of the past week coach Mike Price and the Cougars will settle for good.

Oh, yes, the fallout. After starting 21 games at quarterback for the Cougs and raising all sorts of hell when he was relieved for a quarter last week, Chad Davis took his benching like a man come Saturday. Just before kickoff, he approached both his freshman rival Leaf and the de facto starter, senior Shawn Deeds, and gave each a hug and a handslap. He stood dutifully with the other quarterbacks on the sideline and, from all reports, offered support and suggestions.

If there was dirt to be had, you had to sweep it out from between the lines.

“I don’t want to comment about Chad Davis,” Price said finally. “There’s been enough comment about Chad this week.”

(Problem is, if Chad Davis is still wearing his scarlet letter next Saturday, the Cougars have no backup quarterback for the Apple Cup - but more on that later.)

Happily, Ryan Leaf gave everyone something else to talk about.

Prepared and focused in a way he wasn’t a week ago, Leaf joined the Cougars offense for its second possession and six plays later had Wazzu in the end zone. The next time out, he did it again - piloting an 84-yard drive that ended with an audible - tight end Eric Moore streaking down the middle all alone to give WSU a 14-3 lead.

“That’s been there all year,” Moore said. “Up the middle for the tight end? All year.

“When we release up the middle of the field like that, they usually throw the quick out. All year long, all they had to do was pump (fake) the out and everybody flows to it - but we still run up the middle of the field.”

That would have been a good time to segue into “happily ever after,” but, alas, 46 minutes of football remained. A fumble cost the Cougars a potential touchdown in the second quarter, Leaf went into a brief funk and then age finally caught up with the battered Cougars defense come the second half. Wazzu couldn’t get Stanford stopped, and Leaf could only jump-start the Cougars for one final touchdown.

Still, check out the numbers: 26 of 44, 273 yards, no interceptions, four sacks, three scores - and five drops. The Cougar quarterback bloodline is long and distinguished and there have been maybe 50 better performances; the only comparable fulllength debut that comes to mind is Brad Gossen’s in 1989.

Certainly it erased Leaf’s memory of his awful quarter against Cal last week.

“I should have been ready (then) and I wasn’t and that was my fault,” he said. “That I didn’t help my team out in that situation was my fault. I took that on the chin.

“Wasn’t there a stretch tonight when I was 1 for 7 (actually 2 for 7)? That’s a quarter. I had a whole game. I’m not going to fall on my face all the time. I will eventually and when I do, I’ll be the first to admit it.”

Even beyond the loss, Leaf’s biggest disappointment seemed to be the shoulder injury that shelved his mentor, Deeds, after two more years of waiting and just one series of action.

“He was going to get to play some more if he hadn’t have gotten hurt,” Leaf said. “I was happy to play more, but not because of that. I wanted him to play. It was his last game at home. He had some tears in his eyes that made me feel bad. But he’s a great guy. Shows what type of person he is, how he helped me. He’s out there with a sling on his arm - probably should be in here icing or something - he’s out there still coaching me up.”

When he wasn’t, other teammates were.

“He called a couple plays in the first quarter when he didn’t know what he was saying,” said receiver Chad Carpenter, who caught seven of Leaf’s passes. “Me and Jay (Dumas) were running out there not knowing exactly what was going on, but he really calmed down and played great.

Said receiver Chad Carpenter: “He knows he can do it. He knows he’s a great athlete and he knows he can lead us. He totally came into his own. He exceeded expectations. Physically, the man’s got it and I was proud of the way he got it done mentally.

“I’m excited for him,” Carpenter said. “I’m excited for us.”

, DataTimes MEMO: You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, ext. 5509.

You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, ext. 5509.

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