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WSU rally can’t make up for horrible start

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 11, 2012, 12:06 a.m.

PULLMAN – Mike Leach had no interest in discussing the sour stuff. And this time, the Washington State coach had no problem praising his team’s effort after a massive halftime deficit wound up a closer-than-expected loss.

Consternation arrived early in the name of Marquess Wilson, WSU’s star receiver who notified media late Saturday evening that he’s left the team because of conditions within the program he termed abusive.

His ex-teammates forged on without him, turning what looked to be a laugher into a respectable loss with a furious second-half comeback.

But it was, after all, still a loss on Saturday at Martin Stadium, where the No. 17 Bruins took advantage of myriad Cougars miscues, building a four-score halftime lead before coasting to a 44-36 win.

Wilson, whom Leach said was suspended earlier this week after he walked out of a team workout Sunday night, said in a statement that he is leaving the program because coaches chose to “belittle, intimidate and humiliate us.”

“I’m not going to talk about anybody that’s not here,” Leach said afterward. “I coach the guys that are here. I don’t have anything to say about guys that aren’t here.”

Asked if he would deny Wilson’s accusations of abuse, Leach said: “Absolutely. Next question. And if you expect to ask another one, you won’t keep walking down that path.”

“We’ve got to move on,” quarterback Connor Halliday said.

As for the game? It didn’t look early as if it would be much of one. UCLA blocked four WSU kicks in the first half – two field goals, two punts, the kind of balance every coach desires – and scored touchdowns on a blocked field goal and a fumble return.

WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel left late in the first quarter after taking a hard hit on a first-down run. Trainers examined his neck area – reminiscent of Tuel’s clavicle injury last season – before escorting him to the locker room for further evaluation.

The Cougars’ offense clicked a bit early with Tuel at the helm. He completed 11 of his 14 passes for 127 yards, leading WSU on two drives that might have yielded points had UCLA not blocked both field-goal tries.

Halliday relieved Tuel and struggled to develop any rhythm in the first half. The Cougars outgained UCLA 167-22 in the first quarter. In the second, the Bruins slashed and dodged and weaved their way to a 181-24 yardage edge, scoring 30 unanswered points in the process.

Halliday wound up throwing three touchdown passes and led an offensive attack that in the second half showed signs of life, netting 330 yards through the air.

But the mistakes were killer. One of UCLA’s six sacks also resulted in a fumble that Eric Kendricks scooped and returned 40 yards for a touchdown, giving the Bruins a 37-7 lead with 1:18 remaining in the first half.

Another sack resulted in a safety when Halliday was tackled in the end zone. UCLA returned the ensuing kick to WSU’s 41-yard line. Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley then threw two passes, one that netted 31 yards, the other a 10-yard touchdown to Jordan Payton that set the rout.

But it wasn’t a rout. Halliday brought the Cougars back, throwing touchdown passes to Brett Bartolone, Marcus Mason and Dominique Williams – that one with 6:25 to play – to help pull WSU within 44-28.

When Kache Palacio helped force a fumble that Cyrus Coen recovered on the kickoff following Williams’ score, there was a sense that maybe the Cougars weren’t dead yet.

That is, until Halliday threw an interception two plays later. But he did come back to lead the Cougars on another touchdown drive, an 80-yard excursion capped by a 2-yard scoring throw to Kristoff Williams and a two-point conversion toss to Williams to make it a one-score game.

The onside kick failed, though, and UCLA knelt three times to end it.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the effort,” Leach said.

Imagine that.