PULLMAN – The Cougars reached the apex of their punting conundrums in the first half of last week’s upset loss to Cal at Memorial Stadium. At least, they sure hope they did.
With just under a minute left in the second quarter, Washington State faced fourth-and-2 from its own 45-yard line. The Cougars were trailing 10-3, so they could’ve made an aggressive push for six points, or if nothing else a field goal, before the end of the half.
No risk is too big for Mike Leach, but the WSU coach turned down this particular gamble and instead elected to punt. Leach signaled to special teams coach Eric Mele, who sorted through his three options: A) Placekicker Erik Powell, who has the best sheer leg out of the trio, B) Wide receiver Kyle Sweet, a freelance specialist who has a knack for the rugby style that’s become football’s newest fad, or C) Mitchell Cox, whose precision usually makes him the best choice in short-yardage scenarios.
Cox got the nod, trotted out with the punt team and lined up 15 yards behind long snapper Kyle Celli. The punter had to squat to field a low snap that nearly skimmed the turf, then rolled out toward the Cal sideline and frantically dropped the ball off his right foot. It barely crossed the line of scrimmage before haplessly falling to the turf. A 1-yard punt.
Ross Bowers drove the Cal offense 45 yards in 52 seconds and the Golden Bears scored as time ran out to pad their lead. There were plenty of momentum swings in the game, but perhaps none bigger than the special teams gaffe in the second quarter.
To avoid the self-inflicted wounds, Mele and the Cougars are taking a deep look at the punting situation this week. If one player rises above the rest, he could lock up the gig for good.
“(This week) we’ll kind of dedicate a little more to one (punter),” Mele said, “but there’s still a role for all these guys at this point. Somebody kind of needs to grab the reins and seize the job, but again that’s on me to make sure these guys are prepared going into the game and can execute what we want them to do.”
The punters have been steady in practice all season – an encouraging sign for Mele – but each of the three have had in-game blunders this year. Two weeks ago against Oregon, Powell mishit a punt that landed out of bounds, just 28 yards from the line of scrimmage. Mele sent out Sweet next. He yanked his kick, too, and was credited with a 12-yard punt. Powell’s next try went only 28 yards, but the senior finally got a hold of one in the third quarter, booting it 46 yards.
Collectively, the punters are averaging 33.7 yards per punt this season, which ranks No. 121 of 129 in the FBS. A 19-yarder from Sweet against USC three weeks ago didn’t do much to inflate the team average, either.
“I think it’s just falling back on your training,” Mele said. “Falling back on your training and the situation doesn’t matter, go out there and just do your job and execute. So I feel good about these guys and you fall back on the practice reps. If it was one of these things where you see it happen over and over again and they’re not working hard in practice and trying to do a great job for us, then it makes it even harder to swallow at this point.”
The Cougars still want to narrow down the pool of punters if possible. Leach wouldn’t concede their plan of attack for Saturday’s home game against Colorado (7:54 p.m., ESPN), just that “we’ll punt somewhere between zero and three guys on Saturday. That’s kind of what we’ve got in mind. … So tell Colorado zero to three is what we’ve got in mind.”
Regardless of whether it’s Powell, Sweet or Cox, some configuration of the trio or all three handling the duties, it’s crucial the WSU punter gets a clean snap from Celli.
“One little kind of variance from hip to hip or high and low can kind of throw off the timing a little bit,” Mele said, “so yeah that can kind of tighten up as well.”
More woes on the O-line
Nine times Friday night, WSU quarterback Luke Falk found himself sandwiched between a yellow jersey and the green turf at Memorial Stadium.
Falk and backup Tyler Hilinski have been sacked an FBS-high 32 times this season and the Cougars starter, at 28 sacks, has been taken down more than any other passer at the Power Five level. The nine sacks at Cal were a career-high for Falk and they amounted for 64 lost yards.
Identifying the issues, and finding ways to amend them, has kept WSU offensive line coach Clay McGuire busy all week.
“It really wasn’t just getting beat, it was …” McGuire said before taking a pause. “It’s just hard to put your finger on it. It’s one of those things, just extremely disappointing. Guys running free. It’s hard to say, I really don’t know what to say, the right words.
“I know at the end of the day it falls back on me, I’m the one that prepared them to play that way and they went out and played about as good as I coached.”
Leach deduced that the O-line struggled because once again it lacked toughness. That was also was the culprit when the Cougars gave five sacks against Boise State earlier in the season.
“I think they think they’re too good and they’re not tough,” Leach said on Friday.