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Sports

Blanchette: Cougars mostly got it right

John Blanchette Correspondent
PULLMAN – No more need to worry about Washington State football – the squishy defense, the one-dimensional offense, the potshots at the coach. But how is WSU athletic director Bill Moos ever going to raise enough money to cover the flag budget? Oh, of course. Another 7:30 p.m. TV game. All those cheery Cougs waving the crimson along Highway 195 on Saturday afternoon must have known something Vegas didn’t. Even as semis blew past, as nearby combines dusted their ‘dos and as Oregon drivers saluted with the finger of their choice, the kids kept their banners aloft and their grins in place even. And so did the Cougs. Mostly. Which is a problem. This had the makings of a “really.” A “mostly” like this 38-31 loss to the Ducks just doesn’t make it. “This would have been huge for us,” said WSU quarterback Connor Halliday. “It’s pretty frustrating.” Now, for the backpatters who Mike Leach believes don’t goose the expectations of his team nearly enough, this was a good party in the spiffed up stadium, a grand near-miss against the nation’s No. 2 team and a chance to bitch again about Pac-12 officials –low expectations of whom would qualify as an improvement. Plus, for the folks at home, the Larry Scott Late Movie got over just in time to switch over to the companion feature and see Arizona beat Cal on a ridiculous Hail Mary. If only the Cougs had been in such a position. Instead, their loss to the good-and-lucky Ducks becomes yet another example that the corners that need to be turned by underperforming college football teams are often of the hairpin variety. “I thought we took a step today,” Leach allowed. But you wonder had they taken bigger and better steps earlier against the likes of Rutgers and Nevada if they’d been ready to deliver unto the Ducks the come-uppance they seemed to have coming this night. The makings were there, three touchdown underdogs or not. Though he often ran wild once he penetrated the line of scrimmage and still threw for five touchdowns, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was sacked seven times – Cougs like Xavier Cooper and Ivan McLennan having their way with the Ducks’ beat-up line. In the meantime, so nervous was Oregon about it’s marginal secondary that the Ducks went with three pass rushers against Halliday often as not, giving him precious extra seconds to find just the right option. The Cougs punched. They counterpunched. They took a couple of standing eight counts and fought back. Until they whiffed. When Vince Mayle’s bump-and-run for 34 yards put the Cougars back in position for yet another tying score, they suddenly reverted to the old red-zone blues. Jamal Morrow tried to run sideways against defenders who run sideways faster. Halliday missed River Cracraft on a short out route – an odd bugaboo all night. And finally the refs decided to keep the flags in their pockets when Dior Mathis looked as if he’d hit Isiah Myers a skosh too early on a comeback route. And finally, after not touching Halliday all game, the Ducks broke through, Tony Washington blasting by Cole Madison for the clinching sack. “I could have thrown it up, but it would have been into three people,” Halliday said. “I didn’t see the guy who hit me – my eyes were downfield – and I thought I had more time than I did.” There were some other coulda-beens that needed to be shoulda-beens – the missed field goal in the first half, the fumble in the second. Because against a team as explosive as Oregon, all opportunities beyond the 50 must be redeemed. But, yes, there were steps. By the offensive line, Oregon’s reluctant rush notwithstanding. By the running backs, who if they still don’t present a sure-thing in the way of red zone yards seem to be finding the timely gap. By young defenders like Jeremiah Allison, Darryl Paulo and especially safety Sulaiman Hameed (“He should have been playing earlier,” Leach offered), who did their part to tweak the identity of a defense too passive in the early stages of this season. Even Halliday – who threw four picks in this game a year ago, and none this night. And still he demurred that, “I don’t know if encouraged is the right word. “We’re kind of past the close-game-feel-good-about-that. It’s an opportunity we let slide.” He’s right. Just don’t put the flags away yet.
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