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Cougs suffering red-zone malaise

Alex Brink (10) misfires on one of the Cougars' many trips inside the red zone. 
 (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Alex Brink (10) misfires on one of the Cougars' many trips inside the red zone. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Rarely has a 70-yard run led to such a deflating assumption.

When Washington State running back Derrell Hutsona cut back into the open field, sprinted down the sideline and was hauled down at California’s 5-yard line, the first thought among some – many? – at Martin Stadium wasn’t so much, ‘Hey, great run’ as much as, ‘Oh no, he got stopped in the red zone.’

And you know what they say about first impressions being correct.

On an 80-yard football field, Washington State might be in contention for a Pac-10 championship this morning. On the standard 100-yard variety, though, the Cougars are 4-3 and have seen a couple of opportunities to knock off visiting Top 10 opponents end in frustrating fashion.

The latest punch to the gut came in Saturday’s 21-3 loss to Cal – the Golden Bears’ first win in Pullman since 1979 and the Cougars’ first non-touchdown effort since the 51-3 debacle against the Huskies in 2000.

It was somewhat similar to the 28-22 setback to USC a few weeks ago, only this time WSU’s defense was stouter and its red-zone offense was downright anemic.

Eight of the Cougars’ 12 possessions ended in Cal territory, including their last five. Four saw WSU with the ball inside Cal’s 30. One began at the Bears’ 38. For all that, the Cougars accumulated one field goal with 350 total yards. Against Baylor, the Cougars put up an unimposing 17 points. Against USC, the Cougars mustered three short field goals and a pair of touchdowns. Against Oregon State last week, WSU managed a single touchdown.

“We can move the ball down the field and I don’t know whether it’s a mental thing or what, but when we get down in the red zone it seems like we struggle,” WSU head coach Bill Doba said.

Said left guard Sean O’Connor: “To have that many opportunities and only come away with three points for really the second straight week, it’s unbelievably frustrating.”

What’s the problem? That question was asked about a dozen times to everyone who showed up in the postgame interview room.

“It’s frustrating because everybody can see how close we are to getting it into the end zone, which is the point of the game,” offered quarterback Alex Brink, who was pulled for the first two series of the third quarter. “I guess if I had the answer I wouldn’t be standing here talking about it.

“It’s not a confidence issue, it’s an execution issue. A play gets called, we need to make that play work, whatever the defense does.”

Even when it appears to work, it doesn’t. After Hutsona’s long run – he logged the Cougars’ three longest rushes (70, 12 and 6 yards) – WSU appeared to score when Dwight Tardy took a screen pass toward the left corner of the end zone, reached out with the ball and hit the pylon. Touchdown. WSU trailed 21-9 as it hustled up for the PAT.

Alas, a whistle stopped play. An official review overturned the call on the field and left WSU facing fourth-and-goal at the 1. The Cougars tried a quarterback sneak, but Brink was stuffed by the interior of Cal’s defense.

“It’s execution as much as anything,” Doba said. “What do you call? We tried to throw it. We tried to run it. You have to be able to knock somebody off the line of scrimmage and get some movement.”

Brink wasn’t electric in the first half, but he was probably the best quarterback on the field at that point. He was 13 of 20 for 163 yards, including a nifty 55-yard strike to Brandon Gibson and a well-thrown pass in the back of the end zone that escaped Jason Hill’s outstretched hands.

And Gary Rogers starts the second half? Debate the Cougars’ reluctance to turn to another quarterback more often in the past, but this was one time they probably should have stuck with Brink. In the end, it hardly mattered because Rogers wasn’t effective and Brink whiffed on a pair of ugly fourth-down incompletions in the final 10 minutes. A pair of botched quarterback-center exchanges didn’t help Brink’s case either.

Back to the red zone. If WSU doesn’t resolve those issues soon, its bowl dreams might end up, oh, a few yards shy of becoming reality.

Doba promised a full review and changes are a given.

“Obviously we’re going to have to start (doing) something different,” he said. “Revamp it or (use) motions. I even called one, I said, ‘run the boot,’ and shoot, they had that covered.”

Added Brink: “We’re not executing when it really matters. … The last two weeks, especially offensively, we haven’t played up to our potential. We were talking about this before the game about the word potential and we hate that word because it means we’re not playing as good as we are. We need to get back to doing things how we do them and really focus on ourselves and then worry about Oregon (next Saturday).”

That focus needs to start around the opponents’ 20-yard line.