The Cougars turned in a first-half performance on special teams that was utterly laughable, and lost 44-36 to UCLA.
PULLMAN — Saturday night, Washington State hailed the arrival of ESPN cameras on campus for the first time in 21 years, and a legion of pops for their annual Dads Weekend festivities.
On an evening when the temperature was in the low 20s, the video board didn’t display a sign that said, “Welcome to our fractious little family,” but there might have been. Actually, the family is minus one today, Marquess Wilson having split the program while tossing behind charges of “physical, emotional and verbal abuse” by the coaches.
It happened a few hours before the Cougars turned in a first-half performance on special teams that was utterly laughable, which cost them a 44-36 defeat to UCLA.
But in the wake of those first-half follies, the damnedest thing happened at about 11 p.m., when there were maybe 5,000 people in the seats. The Cougars scored, and then they scored again, and again. And with 91 seconds left, here was UCLA, having to recover an onside kick to preserve what had been a 30-point halftime lead.
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“That’s the hardest I’ve seen this team play, and one of the better ones I’ve seen in my career,” said coach Mike Leach. “I couldn’t be prouder of the effort.”
UCLA scored 30 points in 7 minutes, 39 seconds of the second quarter. There didn’t appear to be any lack of want-to on the part of the Cougars, just a lot of lack of how-to in that ghoulish stretch.
In the first half, they had two field goals blocked, one for a touchdown; they had two punts blocked; they fumbled the ball away on a kickoff; allowed a 40-yard kickoff return; and had an illegal block on a kickoff.
I’m sure I’m leaving something out.
“Kind of befuddling, really,” said Leach. “I’ve gone full seasons, the majority of them, without getting four kicks blocked.”
If Wilson was tormented by the week’s events, he was joined in a different kind of anguish by Eric Russell, who coaches WSU’s special teams.
Quarterback Jeff Tuel exited with what looked like it could be another collarbone injury, and Connor Halliday played the last three quarters.
At half, it was 37-7, leaving the dads and TV talking heads to assess just how big is the crater from which the Cougars (2-8), now carrying a seven-game losing streak, must extricate themselves.
On Wednesday, it will be exactly one year that athletic director Bill Moos went underground to Key West, Fla., met Leach and began the process of wooing him to Pullman for $2.25 million a year.
Now here we are 52 weeks later, and the best player on the team has bolted, alleging some things that Moos doesn’t want to hear.
Leach supporters say Wilson wasn’t tough enough, that he was coddled by Paul Wulff’s staff, and that if he couldn’t get with the program he needed to go. Leach’s detractors simply see the coach as a nut case.
Saturday afternoon, Wilson’s stepfather, Richard Miranda, told me, “Marquess has always been worried about how people view him and look at him.”
Miranda just named precisely the problem that faces the Cougars.
This is a nasty one for WSU, reflected by the dire dialogue going on in the studio on Pac-12 Networks an hour before the game. Wilson may have overreacted, and his feelings could reflect the thoughts of just one individual. Or he may be merely the tip of the iceberg. But regardless, it’s out there.
It began kind of innocently, with Leach’s comment about an “empty-corpse mentality,” delivered so offhandedly Oct. 8 in his regular news conference. Then there was the rip on his receivers’ toughness a week later, and last week at Utah, the example he made of his linemen, whose effort “bordered on cowardice.”
And now Wilson. The Cougars are perceived in some quarters to be a house collapsing. All you have to do is read emails and comment sections to know there’s a sense of concern about Leach, and if it’s prevalent among donors and recruits, that’s trouble.
Leach wouldn’t comment on Wilson, and he said “absolutely” he would deny any physical abuse of players, adding, “Next question. And if you expect me to answer another one, you won’t keep walking down that path.”
On his radio show, referring to the effort, he said, “Clearly, we had some addition by subtraction.”
Moos put out a statement assuring that WSU has policy to handle such athlete complaints.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of stuff on the field that needs work, too. But maybe, just maybe, in the raw chill before midnight, they gave evidence it’s fixable.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org