Connor Halliday has a big game, but Cougars still show faults
LAS VEGAS — It’s a bottom-line thing, college football, and the bottom line said Washington State managed to avoid the embarrassment of losing to UNLV here Friday night.
The final was 35-27, Cougars, which might have made their several thousand fans happy, but for the fact WSU was a point or two or three shy — depending on when those folks visited a casino sportsbook — from covering the spread.
That bummed the fans, but not nearly as much as the iconoclastic new coach, Mike Leach, is flummoxed by the way this team has performed in lurching to a 2-1 record.
Leach said very early that he considers those first three games sort of a package worthy of making some judgments.
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So, after allowing an opponent for the second consecutive week to be flinging the ball on WSU’s side of the field seeking a tie or victory on the last play of the game, Leach weighed in caustically here on a warm desert night. That was right after the Cougars committed seven penalties in the final quarter.
“We need to be tougher in the fourth quarter,” he said. “I’d say it’s about as simple as that. We need to quit entertaining fatigue.
“I think we tell ourselves we’re fatigued long before we’re actually fatigued. Part of being fatigued is a decision. We’re jumping on the fatigue bandwagon way too quick.”
As expected, the Cougars went with Connor Halliday at quarterback because Jeff Tuel had a gimpy knee incurred in the Eastern Washington game last week. Halliday was fine, except for forcing a couple of balls that were intercepted, completing 26 of 45 for 378 yards and four touchdowns.
But the fact the touchdowns were all in the first half suggests, correctly, that the Cougars looked capable of hanging 60 on the Rebels. Look at it this way: WSU beat UNLV by five more points than Northern Arizona, an FCS school, did last week.
Leach’s three-game read has to include the fact that the Cougars do some of the damnedest things. Like cornerback Damante Horton’s play against UNLV’s Marcus Sullivan in the second quarter, when — one play after an 81-yard Halliday-to-Marquess Wilson TD for a 28-10 lead, Horton allowed Sullivan to catch a fade pass at the WSU 43, then got muscled, stiff-armed and escorted all the way to the end zone, a truly horrific defensive play.
This, after WSU’s 14-0 lead in the first quarter was halved when cornerback Anthony Carpenter got completely lost covering Sullivan near the pylon for a 37-yard score.
“We just gotta go out there and play better in the secondary,” said Leach. “Some of that stuff is way too easy. Some of those kids in the secondary talk about being tough; they need to prove it. We need to coach ’em up, me as head coach and everybody else.”
If there’s a team that struggles more than WSU to get off the field on third down, by all means, raise your hand. UNLV was 9 of 17 on third-down conversions, sustaining its last scoring drive when Deone Bucannon was flagged for a late hit on Sullivan. On a night of some dubious officials’ calls, the hit didn’t look blatant, but Bucannon, who had already been suspended for the first half because of a flagrant blow against Eastern, can’t leave it up to the zebras’ discretion.
“If you judge our performance on defense on first and second down, it’s really, really good, especially for a team where we’re at right now,” Leach said. “If you judge it on third downs, it’s astronomically bad.”
For the Cougars, it’s been a herky-jerky, fits-and-starts three games of attack and retreat, of players rising and then receding. Freshman safety Taylor Taliulu, who looked promising and tied for the team lead in tackles against Brigham Young, barely got on the field against UNLV. Starting offensive tackle Dan Spitz didn’t practice all week because of what Leach called “personal issues,” necessitating an offensive-line shuffle against the Rebels.
“We need to learn how to win,” said Halliday, a bit discontentedly.
When it was over, the Cougars had allowed a redshirt-freshman quarterback, Nick Sherry, to complete a school-record 33 passes. And they had beaten by eight points the same team they smoked 59-7 in Pullman a year ago.
Eight points. That wasn’t enough for a good many of their fans, and definitely not for the head coach.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org