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Monday, May 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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John Blanchette: For Mike Leach’s Cougs, this is rebuilding in ghastly slow motion

PULLMAN – Mike Leach is going to make Washington State football relevant once more.

Now, just what is the gestation period on that again?

By Cougar standards, African elephant babes are an overnight sensation.

Those were grim, grimmer – OK, the grimmest – days, back there at the turn of the decade under that other guy, the one who must not be named, the one who’ll never be invited back to hoist the flag over the northeast corner of Martin Stadium as a couple other beloveds were Saturday. Games then were decided by the second quarter, though the consolation was fans weren’t forced to wait all day in anticipation of late-night indignity.

But because most Cougs have managed to repress those unwanted pre-Leach memories, it’s almost impossible to recall when Wazzu football seemed less relevant than it was in its 107th meeting with rival Washington.

The Cougs’ big takeaway from this Apple Cup? Not being shutout in Pullman for the first time since the Yankees released Babe Ruth.

Instead, it was Washington 31, WSU 13, thanks to two fourth-quarter touchdowns that couldn’t have been more meaningless had they been scored with the Huskies back on their own campus this afternoon.

And it served as a rather damning commentary on Leach’s success in forging any sort of identity for his program in three years on the job.

His Cougar teams are 12-25. They’ve had a few hey-how- about-that victories. They’ve had some entertaining near-misses.

And then there’s the Empty Corpse Collection.

Leach doesn’t use that phrase anymore – these are his guys now – but this was one of those.

Odd, that, because this was a Pullman Apple Cup that had everything. Snow that had to be plowed from the field. The home-team tough guys warming up shirtless in a bitter wind chill. A post-coin flip stare-and-shoutdown between the combatants at midfield that crackled with faux ferocity, calling to mind Ron Burgundy’s Channel 4 guys getting ready to rumble their San Diego news team rivals.

OK, it didn’t have all of 32,952 reported ticket holders, but with temperatures headed to the teens and another fans-don’t-matter start time, they can hardly be blamed.

Even the ones who did the traditional halftime bail. Heck, if they’d come back they would have been really pissed.

Still, there was all the usual anticipation, plus the return of and tribute to Steve Gleason, the heart-and-soul totem not just of the Cougar community but the No White Flags doctrine.

And then on UW’s second snap from scrimmage, tailback Dwayne Washington circled around a sensational seal along the left side and stormed 51 yards for a touchdown.

Fifty seven minutes, 36 seconds of football remained. So why did it feel like Game Over?

Because aside from the happy blip of quarterback Luke Falk’s big day at Oregon State, this season has been in virtual free fall since the catastrophe against Cal, when Connor Halliday passed from here to Palouse and back and the Cougars still lost. Competitiveness the last six weeks has been mostly a wish and not a reality.

Nothing quite drove this home like the first three Wazzu possessions – all thrusts into Husky territory. Each time, the Cougs went for it on fourth down – needing two, one and five yards, the kind of situations that Leach’s offense is supposedly built to exploit.

Each time they failed, undone sometime in the concluding series by dropped passes.

“The balls we dropped were devastating,” Leach said, “but the timing of them was worse than the drops.”

Even in their worst moments this season – and there have been plenty – there was always the feeling that the Cougars had something carbonated under the cork, ready to pop.

And this day, not.

Much of the credit can go to Washington’s defense – a secondary even younger than WSU’s which mostly played tight, exacting coverage on the Cougar receivers; and a veteran defensive line that kept Falk on the run, or on his back, just often enough with a traditional rush.

“It was the key to the game on defense,” said UW coach Chris Petersen.

For all his poise in his first two outings, Falk has looked very much like a raw freshman of late. And for all the youth on this Cougar team that predicts good times ahead, the growth from September to this weekend has been an unqualified disappointment. Which falls squarely on the coach.

Not a unanimous opinion, naturally.

“I don’t think we took a step back at all,” insisted receiver Isiah Meyers.

“Obviously, we lost some players and we’re trying to fill those positions. I thought we had an awesome season. I love this group of guys. We played our balls off.”

Well, then 3-9 suggests the Cougars need something more. The message Leach has been repeating on an endless loop – forget the last play, focus on the next – either isn’t being grasped, or more likely isn’t enough.

Not enough to make the Cougs relevant, anyway.

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