Leach says team too timid at times

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PROVO, Utah — The last time a Washington State coach had his first road game here in the foothills of the Wasatch Range, Mike Price stood proudly on the field, savoring his team’s 46-41 shootout victory over Brigham Young.

A postgame, stand-up television interview was going well, just like that game back in 1989. And then a bird swooped over and unloaded on Price’s shoulder, as if to announce that he wouldn’t be getting out of here just that easily.

Thursday night, the comeuppance for the visitors from WSU was visited far earlier, like in the second quarter. By then, the blue Cougars — as they were calling them around Pullman — had scored 17 points for a 26-6 halftime lead, and all suspense was drained out of Mike Leach’s first game on the sidelines for Washington State.

If you’re a WSU fan, you must have been wondering after this 30-6 defeat: Is there no end to our suffering?

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To a fan base that hasn’t savored a bowl game since 2003, that had just endured 40 defeats in 49 games of the Paul Wulff days, there were two potential outcomes that ranged from delicious to acceptable:

The crimson Cougars could pull off a big upset as a double-digit underdog under the audacious Leach. Or at least they could light it up behind quarterback Jeff Tuel and perform like a team that would scare just about anybody against whom it lines up in 2012.

This was neither of those. And as Leach mulled the autopsy well after midnight, he seemed to say that the Cougars are still lugging the baggage of their sordid recent past.

“We vacillated between playing frantic and being overly conscientious (about not making mistakes),” Leach said on the WSU radio network. “We’ve got to find a happy medium in there.”

Despite four forays deep into BYU territory by the early moments of the third quarter, the visitors were simply a mess offensively, unable to sustain offense except when the hosts contributed with several personal-foul penalties.

Tuel, reasonably well protected much of the game, seemed indecisive and unable to pull the trigger with authority.

“He was inconsistent,” Leach said. “I thought he was sharp as to who to throw to, but the operation’s too slow. When you’ve got a guy open, fire it in there. But then, we’re tiptoeing through routes.”

If anything, the WSU defense — seen as easily the bigger liability entering the game — acquitted itself reasonably well, limiting BYU to 123 rushing yards. But it got so little help from the offense the visitors had no chance, becoming the first WSU team not to score a touchdown in an opener since 1971.

Tuel, intercepted twice, wasn’t aided by a running game that, with his three sacks, netted a negative 5 yards.

“We came out feeling really good,” said guard Wade Jacobson. “Then they scored that touchdown, a little adversity hit us, and we didn’t bounce back like we should.”

The right tackle spot, manned by Dan Spitz and Jake Rodgers, surrendered two sacks. Cornerback Daniel Simmons whiffed on a pass breakup for one BYU touchdown, and he was left to rehash another blown coverage with safety Deone Bucannon for another Brigham Young score.

True freshman safety Taylor Taliulu looked like a future star with nine tackles, and WSU was relatively stout defensively against the inside rush. But there was precious little to be excited about for the Cougars, starting with the neck up.

“We’ve got to be a mentally tougher team,” said Leach, who copped that “coaching-wise, we didn’t have them ready to play.

“When something negative happens, we can’t have these Bassett-hound looks on the sidelines. Right now, we’re too fragile. It’s too easy for us to get disappointed.”

But then, they’ve had a lot of practice at it in recent years. On this night, that elusive bowl appearance looked so far away.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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