SEATTLE – Everything we’re to know about the Washington State Cougars, we’re going to learn week by week.
And that’s a relief to those who may have thought the book closed after the unspeakable calamity against Colorado.
This week’s revelation: The Cougs actually can punch back.
Now they just need to do it every time they get hit. Or just not get hit so often.
Whatever else would occur on the turf at CenturyLink Field on Saturday night – and there were a few pretty leaves to be pressed between the pages, even in a 51-26 drubbing at the hands of Oregon – one small moment of truth may have come as early as the subsiding moments of the first quarter, born from a borderline disaster.
A sack and a shank had set up the second-ranked Ducks at the WSU 30-yard line. It took just a couple of seconds for quarterback Marcus Mariota to notice Cougars linebacker Chester Su’a transfixed on what he presumed would be another dose of the Ducks’ read-option running game, and flick the ball over the defender’s head to Kenjon Barner, who was as lonesome as a Democrat in Idaho.
Touchdown, Oregon. At that point it was 20-3, and the Cougs among the 60,929 at the Clink started plotting their halftime fly patterns to Pioneer Square.
Except that Teondray Caldwell promptly ran back the kickoff 92 yards and the Cougs turned it into an immediate touchdown, whether or not Carl Winston actually made it into the end zone.
See? Panic and resignation don’t have to be the default settings.
“Oregon’s a fantastic team,” safety Deone Bucannon said, “and playing with them the way we did in the first half tells us we can play with anybody.”
But the overarching lesson of this particular pounding was really no different than the one from last week’s unsightly swoon.
It’s a process, and process always tilts toward the sucky more than the spectacular.
This was rammed home rather bluntly in the second half by the Ducks, who always look more vulnerable than their national stature would suggest yet certainly seem to win a lot of games by outsized margins.
There was the will-sapping 18-play drive they put together after the kickoff. There was Avery Patterson’s nicely timed pick of a Connor Halliday pass with not nearly enough zip and the dash into the end zone. There was the 80-yard sprint down the sideline by Barner, who seemed to get tackled this night only when Mariota was undecided about handing off or keeping it.
The Ducks were favored by a bunch, and won by a few less. So it doesn’t look like much got done for the Cougars. Halliday himself said as much.
“We’ve got to be able to grow up and battle through it and not quit,” he said. “We’ve got some guys who hang their heads when we need to keep battling, and we aren’t going to be successful if that keeps happening around here.”
This more or less was a week-old echo from when coach Mike Leach commandeered the dais after the Colorado debacle to rail about the lack of grit he was willed by the previous regime – names were not named, but the implication was clear. But this particular setback appeared to be much more about talent than toughness.
The Ducks might have a dozen guys, or more, who could beat the fastest Coug in a footrace. Linebacker Darryl Monroe, among others, chased Mariota with the determination of an alimony lawyer, but there are no proper angles to take on a ghost.
Meanwhile, Deone Bucannon came up with two splendid interceptions, and Halliday – and later Jeff Tuel, in relief – kept firing. Marquess Wilson caught a boatload of passes for a pile of yards.
If it’s aggression Leach was looking for, he got more of it, even in a wipeout.
“It was our most complete game,” Leach said. “I thought we played for 60 minutes, and thought we competed better from start to finish.”
It was, he concluded “the best work we’ve done all season.”
But, no, the Cougs are not poster boys for iron will quite yet.
Twice blessed with first downs inside the Oregon 5-yard line in the first half, they had to settle for field goals, and Leach won’t second-guess himself for taking them any more than he did for passing last week.
And in a series as defining as that endless Oregon drive, the Cougars had a chance to take a lead into the locker room at intermission, driving to the Oregon 17 – only to have Halliday snowed under on sacks on three straight snaps, not only forfeiting the potential touchdown but even a shot at a field goal.
So, no happy endings. Few expected one.
But at least the Cougs showed signs that there’s a point in continuing to turn the page.