December 21, 2013 in Sports

Blanchette: It was high time to watch the clock

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.
(Full-size photo)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Perhaps with the next Pac-12 TV check, Washington State can hire someone to be in charge of bowl game clock management.

Apparently $2.2 million isn’t enough to get that job done.

It was merely the Gildan New Mexico Bowl and not anything to do with roses, but the Cougars’ collapse on Saturday afternoon will rank as the Granddaddy of Them All. Eight points ahead, with the ball, 2 minutes remaining and their opponent out of timeouts – and the Cougars still were resigned to trudge out of University Stadium, veering around the dogpile of Colorado State Rams and their fans reveling in an impossible 48-45 victory.

Surgeons are on call and will be working ’round the clock all week to reset dropped jaws back to their default position.

And for the time being, we have the defining moment of the Mike Leach era, regardless of the good work that was done to get the Cougars back into the postseason in Year 2. This is the sort of pratfall that ruins the best ballets. It’s going to take multiple trips to snazzier bowl games than this with happier outcomes before the Mile High Meltdown fades into a footnote.

The pride-oozing “Wave the Flag” slogan?

Time to change it to “Take a Knee.” Maybe that way someone will get the message.

But probably not.

“We shouldn’t have messed with any of that,” Leach offered in defense of not doing more to shorten the game or lessen risk. “Fine, use the clock. We should have attacked them and got first downs, and then we should have protected the football.”

But in fact the Cougars got the only first down they truly needed to protect their final lead. Only some baffling decisions – and, yes, two unsecured footballs – made it not enough to win.

But more than enough to produce the Mona Lisa in the museum of Cougar failure.

How bad was it?

“I will spend my next 50 years in broadcasting wondering why the Cougars didn’t take a knee,” Bob Robertson told the Cougars’ radio audience, as reported via Twitter.

This pretty much qualifies as Leach’s “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America” moment.

All this undersells the admirable hanging tough the Rams did down three touchdowns at one point and later to put themselves in a position to gobble up Wazzu’s handouts. Leach himself properly paid tribute to the fact that “they didn’t surrender at all.”

“It’s about understanding every play has a history and a life of its own,” CSU coach Jim McElwain said.

The Rams had closed to 45-37 and burned their final timeouts after short Wazzu passes that opened the game-turning series. When Ricky Galvin went low to pull in Connor Halliday’s throw for a first down and the clock clicked under 2:20, it seemed all the Cougars needed to do was kneel three times and punt, forcing the Rams to go maybe 60-some yards in 30 seconds or less.

Instead, Halliday tried a keeper and was rocked by CSU’s Shaquil Barrett, losing the ball as he hit the ground. The fumble was overturned on replay, which should have been enough to scare the Cougars straight.

Uh-uh.

Running back Jeremiah Laufasa – with not one carry to his credit in the game – was sent into the line and promptly separated from the ball by the redoubtable Barrett, this time with no replay relief. The outcome was terrible enough. The fact that the ball was snapped with 25 seconds still on the play clock boggled the mind.

When probed about those choices, Leach testily replied, “Next question. I mean, what the hell kind of question is that?”

Never fall on the sword. Just drive it through someone else.

At least he stayed for more questions. A few minutes later, he couldn’t be bothered to hang through a commercial break to appear on his own radio show.

The rest of the fatal cuts were performance-inflicted, but it shouldn’t have come to that, and Leach’s remedy would have been to “have thrown it, attacked it.”

Except that’s exactly what the Cougars decided to do in the first half, 79 yards from the end zone and a minute to play. Two incomplete passes and a sack forced a punt, and CSU got a critical field goal.

“We need to continue to run all the dimensions of what we do,” Leach insisted. “It’s not a much this play, that play, the other play. I think just the team, starting with the coaches – because coaches and players are in this together, starting with me at the top. I think there was a sense of relaxation there in the fourth quarter that we paid a heavy price for.”

Such accountability is always welcome. But so is prudence. If it’s always about attack-attack-attack, then the program might as well save the roster spots allotted to the punters.

Now the record says 6-7, a seventh straight losing season, and the joy of ending a decade-long bowl absence charred. If they don’t absorb any lessons about time from this fiasco, maybe they can go to school on the question of distance.

As in how far they’ve come. And how far they need to go.

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