John Blanchette: Cougs can’t get out of Seattle fast enough
SEATTLE – Nothing completes a sendoff quite like a plunge into the Famous Last Words file.
The Washington State Cougars called it a wrap on their football donation to the SoDo amusementscape on Thursday night, gifting a 41-38 victory to reward Rutgers for a long trip west even as the game managed to achieve what few of the previous 11 stagings did.
What it did produce is another Cougar loss – the last of six in a row in the CenturyLink collection, an appropriate coda to a now misbegotten enterprise.
Such is the legacy of The Seattle Game. By the time they decided to hype it in upper case – and the action delivered – it had long since staggered into a lower-case attraction.
In that vein, let’s go back to 2005 and hear from the event’s godfather, former WSU athletic director Jim Sterk:
“I feel we have a base of 40,000 who are going to come to this game no matter who we schedule,” Sterk said, testing the theory that year by bringing in Grambling State. “If we don’t screw it up.”
Thursday’s attendance: 30,927.
Congratulations, Cougs. You screwed it up.
It proved to be the evening’s motif. Heck, it seems to be an ongoing bummer – first the New Mexico Bowl meltdown, and now this.
“New Mexico was a debacle,” protested quarterback Connor Halliday. “I don’t think this was a debacle.”
Well, perhaps not on the field.
In the stands, it’s possible the turnout was a referendum after the fact, Sterk’s successor Bill Moos having decided well in advance that this would be the end of the I-5 outreach (and apparently invested accordingly in the marketing of the event). The reasoning is hardly unsound. If Martin Stadium can hold the audience you’re drawing to joints twice that size, then it probably needs to be back in Martin Stadium.
But it doesn’t come without multiple ironies.
Here Cougar fandom has what it’s yearned for after one of the most inglorious slogs in the school’s football history – a competitive, flawed-but-mostly-fun football team, fresh off that first-in-a-decade bowl appearance, debacle or no. The welcome-home party is then attended by 10,000 fewer fans than showed up in a hurricane one year ago.
And all this in the heart of Wazzu alumni country, home to the most significant cluster of grads, we’re constantly told – not just in mass, but in means. As a healthy number saddle up and ride to Pullman every home Saturday, the argument hereabouts had evolved that they “deserved” this lone date over here.
Surely they still do. Somehow, this must be Spokane’s fault.
Meanwhile, it is no less problematic that the Cougars on the field can’t seem to clear the runway for their own takeoff.
“For too long around this university, expectations have been too low,” groused coach Mike Leach afterwards. “It’s not going to get changed from the outside. Everybody is going to have 20 pats on the back before they get back to their house. We have to expect more of ourselves and we’ve got to get more out of ourselves – starting with the coaches.”
A victory over a Big Ten team – even a newly minted one, with a modest football pedigree – would have an encouraging add-on to the steps Leach’s program took a year ago.
Instead, the Cougars surrendered an embarrassing home-run touchdown pass on the game’s first play and spent the better part of three quarters searching for rhythm and an upper hand. When they found it, it looked as if they’d really found it – Halliday at one stretch completing 13 of 15 passes for 150 yards in a pair of touchdown drives that put Wazzu up 31-24.
Naturally, it couldn’t last.
Gary Nova, who at times in the first half looked like the worst senior quarterback at Rutgers since Ozzie Nelson (was a letter sweater his first cardigan?), started making the Cougar secondary look as suspect as its billing. The Wazzu defensive line, purportedly the heart of the unit, contributed little in the way of pressure, and was gashed for 173 yards by running back Paul James.
But even after the Cougars’ River Cracraft fumbled away a punt – and with it the last WSU lead – there were heroics in the making: the Cougars with the ball, 3:24 to play, and a blank canvas. But after throwing for 532 yards, Halliday couldn’t get his team downfield, though sacks and drops contributed to the failure.
“When it’s winning time, you have to go put a drive together,” Halliday said. “I didn’t think all 11 of us truly believed we were going to win that game, and that’s frustrating. We’ll get that figured out and if we do, we’ll build some kind of legacy here.”
Truth is, they did leave a legacy in Seattle this night. And they’ll be happy to let it go.