PULLMAN – The Washington State football team is two-thirds of the way through its season and ready for a break. In the words of quarterback Connor Halliday, “It’s kind of a perfect time for the bye week.”
The Cougars (4-4) are a coin-flip team through their first eight games, and will need to remain so in the final four to qualify for a bowl game. While the team has lost its last two games by a combined score of 114-62, the team showed enough in its loss to Oregon on Saturday to think it can still challenge for a postseason berth.
Just a week after saying that Halliday quit competing in the team’s loss to Oregon State, coach Mike Leach had no qualms with his quarterback’s competitiveness against the second-ranked Ducks, regardless of his four interceptions.
“I thought he kept battling in there,” Leach said. “Some of those picks he had some help. He got hit on one and we dropped one and flicked it up to them.”
Unlike the OSU game, in which the Beavers ran off 35 unanswered points, the Cougars rallied against UO and scored the game’s last two touchdowns. With nearly two weeks before their next game against Arizona State, it will be imperative that the Cougars build on that progress.
One of the biggest improvements was in the way that the Cougars responded when faced with adversity, such as a turnover or a big play by the Ducks. Leach gives the players 24 hours after each game before their minds need to be on the next one, but on Saturday the players didn’t need the cooling-off period.
“I think we did a good job of just moving on to the next play and little things like that,” said defensive lineman Xavier Cooper, who scored a defensive touchdown off a fumble in the loss. “We’ve just got to get in the film room and continue to prepare. … We get a bye week, and after that we play Arizona State.”
There is plenty for the Cougars to improve on. The defense is 11th in the conference in yards given up per play and WSU quarterbacks have combined to throw 19 interceptions, three more than any other team in the country.
The caveat is that WSU does a lot of things very well. The defense is second in the conference with 11 interceptions, and the offensive line is just giving up 1.88 sacks per game, compared to 4.75 a season ago.
But their successes are masked by their deficiencies, and too often a catastrophic play follows a great one.
Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota coughed up his first two fumbles of the year to the Cougars, and was sacked three times. But he combined to pass and throw for just under 400 yards in the rout.
“We just made a little too many mistakes,” safety Deone Bucannon said after the game. “We gave them too many opportunities and we weren’t as physical as we should have been.”
The Cougars’ ability to eliminate those mistakes will determine whether they make it to a bowl game in Leach’s second year at the helm.