PULLMAN – For the dwindling number of Washington State football players old enough to remember the last trip, Saturday’s return to Rice-Eccles Stadium is a reminder of likely the lowest point in their careers.
A 49-6 loss to a 3-5 Utah team was bad enough, but it is the game’s aftermath that lingers.
Coach Mike Leach called the team’s effort “pitiful,” said that not everyone in the visiting locker room would be invited back in 2013 and sent the entire starting offensive and defensive lines to address the media as units, a gesture that visibly affected the players and led to Travis Long storming out of the postgame press conference.
“Being up there after that game, it sucked, you know,” said left guard Gunnar Eklund, the only remaining member of that day’s starting offensive line. “Just because we didn’t play up to our potential, we didn’t give full effort, we didn’t do the things we were supposed to do and it hurt. It did, it stung and it still … I won’t ever forget it.”
The coach wants his players’ focus as far as possible from games that happened two years ago, back in his first season when the program was young and the buy-in was fledgling.
During his weekly Monday press conference the extent of Leach’s reflection was to say, “This isn’t last time. This is this time so we’re just worried about that.”
But his words after the game were clearly designed to have an impact on his players, and Eklund said they still resonate. The Cougars are coming off a 38-31 loss to No. 2 Oregon in which their effort was never in doubt.
“(I) thought we played extremely hard, I thought we took a step,” Leach said. “I thought we improved as a team.”
This Saturday’s trip to Utah will require similar determination. Salt Lake City is a tough place to win as No. 5 Stanford found out last year in a 27-21 loss. No. 23 Arizona State escaped with a one-point win, and No. 12 UCLA was more than happy to leave with a 34-27 win in a tight game.
The last time the Cougars were there they did not exhibit the mental toughness to even have a shot at a win. Ideally, Leach’s comments after that game served as a challenge to his players.
Two years later, the linemen who were sent to answer for the team’s performance that day – Eklund and defensive lineman Xavier Cooper – have the chance to meet it in the same building where it was issued.
“I’m excited to go back. I’ve been wanting to go back to Utah for a while just because we owe them one there,” Eklund said. “(That game) did stay with me a little bit. I’m excited to go back and play them and that game’s far gone, it’s not us, it’s not Cougar football, but deep down it’s still with me.”
New offensive formation adds linemen
Against Portland State, the Cougars showed off a new offensive formation, bringing in offensive linemen B.J. Salmonson and Jacob Seydel as tight ends in a “jumbo” package, effectively giving the team seven offensive linemen.
The extra blockers were used on the goal line and helped clear the way for running back Gerard Wicks to score on a short touchdown run.
The Cougars used the formation again against Oregon, this time in the middle of the field. Leach said that it’s an offensive wrinkle he’s had in his back pocket for a while, and is bringing it out now because the team finally has the personnel to run it.
“It’s nothing that we haven’t done over the years,” Leach said. “We haven’t done much of it here. It’s a little more personnel-based. We haven’t done much of it here but over the years I’ve done quite a bit of it.”
Offensive line coach Clay McGuire said it’s not just a formation the Cougars will use to pound the football.
“Well, we’ve been getting in that set and using (receivers River) Cracraft and Kristoff (Williams) with it to throw fades, slants and things like that,” McGuire said. “There are two offensive linemen in there because that’s what they do, block, and it just gives us the option to run it or throw it if we need to.”
Cal another night kickoff
The WSU schedule has been updated to show a 7:30 p.m. kickoff for the home game against California on Oct. 4.
The game will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
With a 6 p.m. start for the following week’s game at Stanford, it means the Cougars will play at least seven consecutive night games to open the 2014 season.
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