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Sunday, December 8, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grip on Sports: Nevada loss cripples Cougs

Richy Turner and his Nevada teammates played with more energy than WSU. (Associated Press)
Richy Turner and his Nevada teammates played with more energy than WSU. (Associated Press)

Saturday: It’s pretty easy to imagine how the typical Cougar fan feels this morning. Disappointed, discouraged and confused. Above all, confused. That last one I understand. I share that final one.

Watching the Cougars’ 24-13 loss to Nevada, I was at a loss to figure out why Washington State was losing. The Cougar defense was so much better at the point of attack for most of the game. Heck, eight times Nevada had possessions that lasted five plays or less and resulted in zero points. Eight times.

The offense was moving the ball, at times with efficiency and precision. It finished with 427 yards of total offense and averaged more than 10 yards per pass. But WSU trailed almost from the beginning. So, like a lot of you, I was searching for answers.

Yes, Connor Halliday’s first interception hurt deeply. The poor throw to the left sideline led to a short field and the Wolf Pack took advantage, scoring a first-quarter touchdown for a 7-0 lead. Halliday ended up throwing another pick on a pass that bounced off a receiver’s hands, which gave the Cougars two turnovers. And seeing that the defense couldn’t force any – it has just one, an interception, in the first two games – the Cougars lost the turnover battle 2-0.

There were a few big breakdowns defensively. The first, and most glaring, was caused by some confusion, leading to Cody Fajardo’s 55-yard run right up the gut preceding the Wolf Pack’s second touchdown. But the ones late, when the Cougars were trying to get Nevada off the field, once again seemed even more important.

Still, holding Nevada to 24 points, with seven of those coming off a turnover, doesn’t seem bad. Yet it wasn’t enough. The Cougars found the end zone just once and it took a perfect Halliday-to-Vince-Mayle connection to make it happen. Otherwise, nothing.

A couple of non-calls in the red zone hurt – the waved-off pass interference at the end of the first half was huge, costing the Cougars four points and momentum – though the pass was uncatchable, as called, it didn’t matter; the call should have been defensive holding as a grab occurred even before the ball was in the air – but mainly it was self-immolation that burned the Cougars.

A couple of cheap false starts, a couple of incorrectly run patterns and a couple of missed field goals by Erik Powell sapped the Cougars’ energy and stunted drives. Speaking of energy, it seemed as if there were two speeds on my television set: the one the Cougars were playing at and the one Nevada used. For one of the few times in the Mike Leach era it looked as if the opponent played harder and faster for 60 minutes.

Now none of these factors, by themselves, should have made the difference. The Cougars were the better team. But, added up, they led to the debacle you saw, or listened to, last night.

Where does that leave this Cougar season, one that seemed so promising less than two weeks ago? Well, it’s a given it will last just 10 more games. There probably won’t be any bowl game to climax the season. But that’s 10 more opportunities to salvage some respect and pride in Pullman.

Yes, the Pac-12 schedule is tough (before that kicks in, FCS also-ran Portland State comes to town next Saturday) but the seemingly endless parade of ranked teams gives Washington State the opportunity to make a mark. An upset here or there, while not ensuring the coveted postseason berth, will still give the Cougars something to hang the season on.

That’s about what’s left after two losses in games that left WSU fans disappointed, discouraged and, yes, confused.

Friday: Listening to Colin Cowherd this morning, I was struck once again by the power of the NFL. A Thursday night game in early September on the tube draws a 16-plus overnight rating, according to numbers cited by the ESPN radio host. That’s better than NBA Finals games, World Series games, heck, better than most any other sporting event. It’s the season opener, sure. And the defending Super Bowl champions are on, which makes it a bit more special. But that doesn’t explain how the pregame show gets a rating in the 15s. That’s just domination. More dominating than even the Seahawk defense.

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