PULLMAN – Maybe this will be looked back on as the epiphany, the catalyst for glory, the jolt desired but previously unrequited in the first 300 days of the Mike Leach era.
But right now, it’s simply a new level of low for your Meltdown Millionaires, the Washington State Cougars.
Now we know what surviving those Hail Marys the last couple of weeks was all about.
The Cougs have been honing their fourth-quarter fade against so-so competition so they’d be ready to go into full swoon against an even weaker opponent.
Colorado? Rocky Mountain ay yi yi?
If college football was Euro soccer, the Buffaloes have been flirting with relegation. Their pre-Pullman resume included losses to Colorado State (0-3 since), Sacramento State (maybe the guarantee check bounced) and Fresno State (but only by 46 points). They weren’t just under siege, they were under anesthetic.
So, naturally, they scored three touchdowns in the last seven minutes and pulled off a 35-34 stunner – an incredible coda (Couga?) to another Wazzu homecoming.
It wasn’t smoke and mirrors. OK, there was smoke – a scuzzy second-hand layer from smoldering acreage in the region, mixed in with usual tailgate barbecuing.
The mirrors, well, the Cougs get to look into those today.
“Stupid,” quarterback Connor Halliday complained.
“Disgusting at every level,” spat Leach.
“I don’t get it,” sighed cornerback Daniel Simmons.
He has company. The Cougars, players and coaches, don’t seem to grasp precisely what needs to be done to secure victory, or understand the value every single win has to this program at this stage of its existence.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Asked about a wake-up-call angle to this pratfall, Leach hit the mother lode of bottom-line logic.
“The wealth of wins we’ve enjoyed around here – we’re not awake?” he said. “We’ve got this rich tradition of kicking everybody’s ass? How can you not be awake?”
But there’s awake and there’s aware.
Awake is Leach wanting to instill his aggressive, all-in, pass-or-die-trying vision on a team desperate for identity. Aware is dealing with the fragility of his new protégés, especially a defense flawed and unaccomplished that will need every easy point the offense can supply. So if even the decision to go for it on fourth down with eight minutes to play and the Cougs up 17 points was greeted with cheers, three more points from kicker Andrew Furney would have produced a winner Saturday – which is the whole point of Saturdays.
Awake is the unanimous sentiment the Cougs copped to while modeling their postgame hair shirts that the big lead had rendered them complacent. Aware is safety Deone Bucannon’s assessment that, “We need to grow up.
“The coaches are doing more than enough to put us in great situations,” he insisted. “I feel like we’ve overused the ‘young team’ kind of excuse. We need to act like we want to win.”
Winning is going to be difficult when you let a lumbering tight end behind you for a 70-yard touchdown (“Totally my fault,” Bucannon confessed), or surrender an 84-yard TD run with a backup quarterback in the game to predictably hand off. Implosions like that, flapdoodle penalties and the offense’s penchant for coasting launched Leach into a tirade on toughness that was brutal and honest.
“We want to go complacent when we’re ahead, and then we want to panic when something good happens for the other guy,” he ranted.
Are the Cougs just not good enough?
“We’ve got plenty,” he insisted. “We’ve got enough. But our guys have to elevate their mentality, expect to be successful, and embrace the challenge of winning the next play just because.”
But mental toughness can be reflected in prudence as well as aggression. On the fourth-quarter drive that ended with an interception on fourth-and-3, the Cougars averaged 4 yards a pop on four rushes. They ran it just twice the rest of the game, and kept up the quick-snap place when the clock was their ally.
Just Leach’s style? OK.
But part of his healthy salary should be earmarked for having a feel for context. Wins have been rare here, yes, so they’re precious, even over the lowliest programs, even in conventional fashion. If this team ends up a win short of bowl eligibility – any bowl – the missteps of Saturday will be magnified.
Of course, a bowl trip looks to be nothing but a pipedream now, unless you can honestly see four more wins on the schedule, and probably presumptuous before.
“I think the players felt like, oh, we got Coach Leach, a great coaching staff, a whole bunch of excitement on campus,” said Bucannon, “and we’re just going to win games automatically.”
That’s fantasy masquerading as faith. The Cougs can only hope that the smoke clears before that mirror gazing today.
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