PULLMAN – Deep thoughts from the deep thinkers in the end zone seats Saturday at Martin Stadium:
“Hey, USC,” read the hand-made sign. “The funny thing is, we still have a better chance of making a bowl game.”
Hmm. Not if it requires tackling the bowl rep armed with the invitation.
Or put it this way: If Reggie Bush had played against a defense like Washington State’s, he would have been too sheepish to accept the Heisman Trophy in the first place, never mind being shamed into returning it.
So here we were Saturday at the Schadenfreude Bowl, where deriving pleasure in the misfortune of others was a two-way street. Fans in crimson piously reasoned that while the Cougars are now 29 games into an abyss of unprecedented haplessness, at least it’s disgrace earned honestly. Those in cardinal took comfort that while “Cheaters” is now their school’s last name – “Unscrupulous” and “Snotty” being the first and middle – at least their football program will never reach the competitive depths plumbed by Wazzu.
Good times, all the way around.
Of course, there remains a scoreboard to settle the football business, and once again the Cougars were debtors in this domain – falling 50-16 to Probation U. in front of an alleged audience of 24,310, many apparently doused in silver body paint to make them indistinguishable from the tin bleachers.
And Wazzu had to kick a field goal in the fourth quarter to make it that close. Is there such a thing as running down the score?
Mathematicians will note that the 34-point spread is a shade over WSU’s average loss in Pacific-10 Conference play a year ago, so naturally the question lingers: Is there any progress at all?
Temporarily, it seemed so. The Cougars smartly marched 80 yards with the game’s first possession and shocked all in attendance, the Trojans in particular, flanker Jeffrey Solomon lofted a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jared Karstetter. The confluence of amazement was overwhelming. WSU had seized the moment and the emotion with a flawless drive and a perfectly enunciated gadget play. It was the first of 230 yards the Cougars gained before halftime, and signaled a boldness this baby-steps program has lacked.
Three snaps later, USC led 14-7.
“We talked about it on the sidelines,” sighed Solomon. “We’re so close to being good that it’s not even funny.”
Well, no, it is not funny. And they must get to mediocre, average and decent before they can even catch the scent of good.
His point was, however, that again there were more painful, incremental gains – all of them swept into insignificance by a glaring failure to perform one of football’s bedrock requirements: the act of tackling.
We saw this before in Wazzu’s opener at Oklahoma State, but it was taken to clinical extremes Saturday. Nine USC running plays went for 10 yards or more. The two longest pass plays – 58 and 44 yards – were short tosses that turned into spectacular slaloms. Three, four, even five Cougars would have a shot at the ballcarrier before one would manage to tip him over. A busted play produced a 9-yard gain.
“It’s killing us,” admitted defensive coordinator Chris Ball. “Just killing us.”
The explanations seemed as many as the misses themselves – overpursuit, bad angles, lunging and reaching, and the tried and true “not wrapping up.” Ball also noted that, “It’s not just a technique – it’s a frame of mind, too.”
Cornerback Daniel Simmons, almost helplessly, acknowledged that, “It feels like a virus.”
“If you’re not able to tackle, you just shouldn’t be on the field,” he said. “These are big-time guys. We’re in Pac-10 play now. Everybody’s highly recruited. Everybody’s a god. You can’t just hit a guy with a shoulder and expect him to fall.”
It is almost morbidly fascinating to watch coach Paul Wulff attack the weekly referendum on his performance, adding yet more youth in gasoline-on-a-bonfire fashion. Early on Saturday, he benched one of the game captains – senior safety Chima Nwachukwu – in favor of 18-year-old Deone Bucannon, who made a season’s worth of mistakes. He also made an interception and led WSU in tackles, in part because the linebackers tasked with making them whiffed.
But can youth always be the alibi, especially when a fundamental like tackling – and perhaps other things? – either isn’t being properly learned or isn’t being properly taught?
“It’s getting really old,” Ball said of the ever-mounting losses. “Really old. We’ve got to find a way. And it starts with each coach looking himself in the mirror and making sure we’re doing the right things.
“We need to win a football game.”
Not a deep thought, exactly. Unless you’re standing where the Cougs are.
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