Cougars need to rebuild, starting with the offensive line
CORVALLIS, Ore. — Through his coronation as the new football coach at Washington State, through the spring, through fall camp, Mike Leach has never uttered the word “rebuilding.”
So, as night falls over the Willamette Valley after another golden Indian summer day, we’ll say it for him: The Cougars are rebuilding.
They fell in an unexpected fashion here Saturday to undefeated, 14th-ranked Oregon State, 19-6, playing defense like it hasn’t always been played at WSU, but doing so little right on offense it would take an episode of CSI to uncover those triumphs.
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“I really don’t know what rebuilding is,” said Leach. “No matter who you have, you’ve got to go out there and play the best you can.”
Here’s the definition of rebuilding: It’s playing with an offensive line that is revealing itself not to be of Pac-12 quality. It’s a deadly lack of a running game, one that produced 20 yards against a stout Oregon State front.
It’s quarterbacks who become so skittish behind that line that Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel, each playing two separate stints, combine for four interceptions.
It’s receiver Marquess Wilson, whose body language is sometimes so indifferent that they talk about it on the OSU radio network.
That’s what rebuilding is. It’s the plaintive words of safety Deone Bucannon, who was asked if he was surprised by a 2-4 start.
“Of course it’s surprising,” he said. “I don’t know that anybody understands it like we do. It’s not like it’s another loss and we’re gonna go lie down and sleep like babies.
“It means something to us. It’s not just a game for this team.”
Leach will be — already is — questioned for what happened to the turbocharged offenses of his Texas Tech days. Is it possible he spent all his wizardry in Lubbock?
It’s too early for sweeping conclusions. Those need to wait until the day when a WSU offensive line is good enough to keep Foss High product Scott Crichton from sacking Tuel as part of a three-man rush — twice — late in the third quarter.
On a day when WSU failed to get into the end zone for the first time since late in the 2010 season, here’s how Leach capsulized it:
“We’re getting beat up front, because Oregon State is more physical than we are, and the quarterback’s on his first read, and maybe he can’t go beyond because of time (the pass rush), or maybe the receiver gets jammed up,” Leach said. “And about the time he’s got the time to read the field, we’re not able to do that because he’s had people in his lap the last four or five plays and doesn’t trust it to go on.”
It took the Cougars four series to get their initial first down, and at that, it was a fine, diving, 12-yard catch by Isiah Myers at the sticks. Meanwhile, the WSU defense stunted five OSU possessions deep in Cougar territory in the first half, limiting the Beavers to two field goals.
But Halliday was all over the place against a lot of OSU man coverage, throwing two first-half interceptions, and Leach turned to Tuel to settle Halliday down. After a quick, 51-yard strike to Wilson, that drive produced no points.
When Halliday returned in the third quarter, his second pass was jumped by OSU’s standout corner Jordan Poyer, who had three picks. That put Halliday on the bench for the rest of the day.
“Connor got intercepted, Jeff got sacked,” said Leach. “Either way, we’ve got to improve both of them.”
And so it went. For want of any sustained offense, any real succession of first downs, an excellent defensive effort went begging. The Cougars made Sean Mannion, who had torn up both UCLA and Arizona, look average, intercepting him and sacking him three times each.
“By far,” said Bucannon, asked if it was the best defense WSU has played in his three seasons.
“The defense did a hell of a job,” said Tuel. “I mean honestly — they gave us every opportunity in the world to win a game.”
So now Leach must sort out the Halliday-Tuel equation. If they’re close in practice, it’s logical to turn it over to Halliday, since he’s a sophomore and Tuel is a senior.
But Halliday is often reckless with the ball — he has a league-leading nine interceptions — and this was Tuel’s team throughout the spring and summer as Halliday did little recovering from a serious liver injury sustained last season.
Just another subplot in a dreary exercise WSU knows so well: rebuilding.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org