SEATTLE – Washington State’s season got tougher on Thursday night. The enduring effect of the Cougars’ 41-38 loss to Rutgers is that the Cougars will need to beat one more opponent in the loaded Pac-12 to qualify for a bowl game.
The immediate concern is that every team the Cougars plays will likely follow the Scarlet Knights’ offensive game plan until WSU proves it can stop the run.
But those same teams can’t like what they saw from WSU’s passing game, which looked capable of approaching 6,000 yards this season after sputtering through the team’s first few drives.
The touchdown Rutgers scored on the game’s first play from scrimmage increased the challenge the Cougars face the rest of the season, but the fact that WSU outscored the visitors over the game’s final 59:44 provided glimpses of reasons they may be able to overcome it.
“It was a spotty performance, as I said before,” coach Mike Leach said after the game. “It wasn’t that bad of a performance, it was a spotty performance and we gave up way too many explosives.”
“We’ve got to do it as a group,” quarterback Connor Halliday added. “It’s not individuals. We’ve got to come together as a group. There’s no finger-pointing. We didn’t get it done as an offense.”
By having the offense take ownership of the loss, Halliday – the undisputed leader of the offense – is covering for his defense that simply wasn’t good enough on Thursday.
It was only the last of a number of moments when Halliday showed leadership on Thursday that, more than anything else, could allow the Cougars to quickly put the loss behind them.
The quarterback took three sacks on Thursday and took additional hits. Where in the past Halliday might have shown frustration, there was none of that against Rutgers from the fifth-year senior. In fact, he often responded to a hit with a big play, overcoming a limp long enough to hit Isiah Myers for an important third-down touchdown in the third quarter.
If sophomore receiver River Cracraft had merely called for a fair catch at midfield during a punt return with the Cougars up 38-34 and 7:13 left on the clock, WSU may have put the game out of reach.
Halliday got in Cracraft’s face after the fumble, which proved critical, not to deride the receiver but to build him up, high-fiving him and encouraging him.
The Cougars don’t have much time for improvements before hitting the road to take on Nevada on Friday night. They’ll need to find and fix whatever issues there were in the run game on both offense and defense and the secondary needs to play better with a game under its belt.
But more important the team must continue to embrace the “focus on the next play” mindset as team leaders like Halliday and Vince Mayle have.
The Cougars have had chances to take the lead in the final minutes each of their last three games dating back to last season, but have fallen short when big plays break for their opponents.
“We all want to win, we just have to have the will to win,” Mayle said. “We just have to get everybody on the same page with everyone wanting the will to win. When you know you’re going to win, you’ll take the ball and you’ll keep playing hard.”