CORVALLIS, Ore. – Deone Bucannon said it as if it were a certainty.
Can Washington State, owner of a 2-4 record midway through the season, still make it to a bowl game?
“Of course,” the junior safety said.
“I think it’s very realistic,” quarterback Connor Halliday added.
Their optimism, though, might not jibe with WSU’s remaining schedule. After a 19-6 loss to Oregon State on Saturday, the Cougars play three of their final six games on the road, four against teams with winning records.
Even next week’s game against California (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12) looks considerably tougher after what the Bears did to No. 25 UCLA on Saturday, as Cal routed the Bruins 43-17 and piled up 481 yards of total offense.
A bye week for WSU then precedes a trip to No. 17 Stanford, which is followed by a game against Utah in Salt Lake City.
The Cougars aren’t likely to be favored in any of their next three games, yet they must win at least one of them to maintain hope of qualifying for a bowl game for the first time since the 2003 season.
In fact, with WSU’s final three games coming against UCLA, at Arizona State and home against Washington – three teams with a combined record of 11-5 – it might take a series of upsets for the Cougars to have a chance at the postseason.
“We’re a great team and we work a lot harder than people see,” Bucannon said. “Especially going into fall camp and putting in all that work. Of course we’re surprised. Losing at all, not being 6-0 – every game is surprising.”
As if losing four of its first six games wasn’t problematic enough, WSU now also has more questions about its quarterback position than at any point this season.
Halliday started WSU’s last four games but was benched in favor of Jeff Tuel on Saturday after throwing three interceptions. But coach Mike Leach said after Sunday night’s practice that he thinks Halliday will start again this week.
There have been protection issues, too, with the Cougars shuffling their offensive line personnel a couple of different times on Saturday.
And everyone, Leach said, needs to be more physical.
“We had too many guys getting slung around,” Leach said. “And when that happened, rather than rely on our technique, it became a series of street ball. I thought we spent most of the day playing street ball on offense.”
That wasn’t the first time Leach has used the term “street ball” to describe his team’s offensive performance. Midway through Leach’s first season at WSU, the Cougars’ No. 15 national ranking in passing offense is just about the only offensive statistic that sits where expected.
In passing efficiency, the Cougars rank 96th. They are also 96th in total offense, and next-to-last in rushing offense and, more importantly, yards per carry.
But most unfamiliar for Leach is the losing: In his 10 seasons as coach at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders owned a losing record for exactly one week. That was after a loss to Ohio State in the 2002 season opener. But they won their next game and didn’t dip below .500 the rest of Leach’s tenure.
Leach made it clear he doesn’t think about whether his team is in rebuilding mode, instead repeating the same mantra that led his Texas Tech teams to a bowl game each season he was coach.
“I don’t really know what rebuilding is,” Leach said. “No matter who you have, you go out there and you play the best you can. Whoever’s the best at each position, you play him, coach him up, push the kid and go out there and make plays.”
A few more will be needed to avoid uncharted territory for Leach.