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Washington State pays for sporadic performance on both sides during second spring scrimmage

Washington State’s defense reacts from the sidelines after a play during a spring practice on April 5 at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Washington State’s second spring scrimmage, held Saturday morning beneath rainy skies at Martin Stadium, offered players numerous chances to improve their cardiovascular conditioning.

This was, after all, a football scrimmage, so the Cougars could already count on some of those. Others were sprinkled in at the discretion of the WSU coaches, who at times were left unsatisfied with the level of performance or consistency maintained throughout a two-hour scrimmage that encompassed more than 100 plays and seven offensive series.

When the offensive finally sputtered during the last drive of the day – largely because the offensive line couldn’t shield the defensive line, and more specifically Nick Begg, from quarterback Cammon Cooper – coach Mike Leach succinctly paused the scrimmage and ordered a round of up-downs.

“We didn’t finish and we didn’t feel like protecting very badly,” Leach said. “I believe that up-downs are more inconvenient than protecting and we just wanted to make sure that that’s clear. That protecting’s easier than up-downs and in the event it’s not, we’re going to do one or the other.”

The defense held firmly on the final series; the offense did not. Cooper’s unit was held out of the end zone and Begg kept the pressure on, scoring three “sacks” before Leach finally signaled the scrimmage’s end.

But the defense faltered enough through the first six drives that its strong finish would’ve ultimately been deemed inconsequential had the Cougars been keeping score.

“I thought we finished pretty good,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “The problem is, the way we started, we would’ve been down 35-0. And so you’ve got to be ready to go and I’ve got to do a little bit better job at the beginning as a whole.”

Claeys is also beginning to hold his players accountable, though. The first-year DC has given them some leeway, citing the difficulties that can come with learning a new system, adjusting to new coaches – there’s four on the defensive side of the ball – and shaking off the rust that naturally accumulates during the offseason.

But the defense conceded nine touchdowns on Saturday, totaled just two interceptions – a handful slipped through their paws – and gave up way too much ground in the red zone, in Claeys’ estimation. Eight of the nine offensive touchdowns were scored there.

So, after the Cougars broke out of a huddle to close the scrimmage, Claeys rounded up his defensive players, brought them to the west end zone and gave them one more chance to stretch their legs. The Cougars ran wind sprints for almost 10 minutes as Claeys barked in the background, before finally peeling off to the locker room.

“We played great defense a year ago,” said Claeys, who took over for Alex Grinch in January. “But in the red zone, it was a problem. It was the same thing today. I told coach (Leach) I’d like to have a lot of red zone snaps and we have to play better there and we didn’t have that.

“Sooner or later, there’s a consequence to it. It’s OK if first we’re teaching this new scheme, some things are new, coaches are new, but pretty soon to get anywhere in life you’ve got to quit making excuses and get it done. So we’re at that point.”

Three WSU quarterbacks each eclipsed the 100-yard marker through the air and Cooper was the most efficient, doing it on only 13 pass attempts and nine completions. He rolled up 134 yards in the air and threw two touchdown passes.

Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon still have at least a furlong lead on Cooper when it comes to the QB race, but each of the three got two drives during the scrimmage, while Connor Neville and John Bledsoe each had one.

Tinsley was 15 of 23 with 112 yards and three touchdowns, Gordon completed 12 of 17 for three touchdowns, Bledsoe was 5 of 10 for 72 yards with one touchdown and one interception while Neville threw 4 of 8 for 72 yards, throwing one pick but no touchdowns.

“I thought Tinsley and Gordon were the best,” Leach said. “I thought they went back and forth.”

It’s been that way since spring camp opened up three weeks ago, but the front-runners to replace Luke Falk say their competition is good-natured – each is willing to help the other.

“Me and Trey will text each other at night if we have an idea or something,” Gordon said. “We’re real close. We like to share ideas with each other to see what we think about it and all that.”

Jamire Calvin was the top receiver in terms of productivity – he caught seven passes for a team-high 98 yards – and Kyle Sweet was close behind with seven receptions for 77 yards. “X” receiver Tay Martin found his way into the end zone most, with three touchdowns , and the increasingly reliable Easop Winston had two more.

For the second time in two scrimmages, Spokane’s Rodrick Fisher had a touchdown on his only catch of the day.

Begg registered four sacks for the defense. Skye Keller and Armani Marsh had the only interceptions.

Jack Crane continues to be a model of consistency at place-kicker and made three more field goals (39, 42, 42) after drilling all four of his kicks in the first scrimmage.

“We’ll see. They’re working with him all the time,” said Leach, asked if Crane would be WSU’s kicker moving forward. “I do think he’s made some progress, though.”