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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU keeps winning, but fourth-quarter problems are real

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk  throws to wide receiver Gabe Marks  during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (Matt York / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Nearly halfway through Washington State’s Pac-12 schedule, an undefeated conference record remains there for the taking. But the Cougars have to stop trying to give games away.

WSU has been outscored in each of its last two fourth quarters, and the final minutes against UCLA and Arizona State were much more nervous for the Cougars than they needed to be.

Now, it is possible the Cougars were playing against a stacked deck in those fourth quarters. Leach declined to comment when asked about his team’s struggle in the second half against ASU.

But a close reading of the events preceding and following the game lead a keen observer to the conclusion that he blamed WSU’s inability to put the Sun Devils away to ASU’s apparent dedication to figuring out its opponent’s signals.

Maybe something similar happened against UCLA. Leach did say the Bruins were interfering with WSU’s snap cadence. But even if that’s the case, both teams got away with whatever they were doing, and the Cougars are going to have to play better in fourth quarters to prevent something similar from biting them at some point this season.

Timely turnovers saved the Cougars (5-2, 4-0 Pac-12) against UCLA, and WSU salted away ASU with shrewd clock management, an area in which coach Mike Leach has drawn criticism from fans in the past. But the Cougars had outscored their opponent in five of the other six quarters of those two games.

And it’s been a puzzling deficiency for the Cougars, who have placed an extra emphasis on fourth quarters this season, after having pulled out so many last-minute wins a year ago.

“It’s one of those things from a toughness issue,” offensive line coach Clay McGuire said before Saturday’s game. “Every game we could have won, and that’s where we kind of realized was where games were won and loss.

“The disappointing thing (against UCLA) was we had a chance to go out there and really dominate a fourth quarter and put it away, and we didn’t,” McGuire continued. “But the good thing is we found a way to win it anyways.”

As the Cougars continue to sit atop the Pac-12 North standings, with a game to come against Washington, with whom WSU is tied, each fourth quarter becomes more critical. The difference between playing in one bowl game and the other is not so critical to a team whose fourth-quarter giveaway drops it from fifth to six in the conference.

WSU will almost certainly make a bowl game, and in all likelihood will become bowl eligible this weekend, so long as they can put away an Oregon State team that is currently a 17-point underdog.

But a missed field goal in the fourth quarter can keep a team out of the Pac-12 championship game or the Rose Bowl. The Cougars know that well, since a missed field goal in the waning seconds of last year’s game against Stanford may well have cost them both.

The Cougars were outscored by four points in the fourth quarter of that game against eighth-ranked Stanford. They lost 30-28.

Now, WSU has been exceptional these past two seasons at finding ways to win close games. The Cougars were 7-3 last year in games decided by a touchdown or less, and are 2-2 this year.

But just one more loss could be enough to squash WSU’s dreams of a divisional championship or Rose Bowl appearance, and the Cougars want a storybook ending to this season, they need better endings on a weekly basis.