Share story

Well, realistically, this is going make it kind of a hard pull for Washington State to crash the first college-football playoff.

Twelve-and-one is still possible, I suppose, but only in a world in which you think Richard Sherman is going to swear off interviews and Mike Leach is ready to apologize to Marquess Wilson.

The Cougars played in fits and starts — the fits chiefly on defense — and fell miserably to Rutgers, 41-38, Thursday night at CenturyLink Field in front of a crowd of 30,927, which ought to convince the WSU brass not to return until, oh, maybe the next century.

It wasn’t enough that Connor Halliday threw for 532 yards and was more superlative than suspect, completing 40 of 56 throws for five touchdowns and one interception. Because no matter how successful Leach’s Air Raid offense is at cunning and deception, the game is still largely about who has the most bruising bodies at the point of attack, and there was no mistaking that team to be Rutgers.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The Cougars were a lot better in the postgame interview session than was their defense, which gave up 496 yards.

Referring to WSU’s final possession, Halliday questioned whether there was total belief among all 11 players. Then Leach came in and revisited a theme that he first appropriated two years ago when he took over.

“The thing is, for too long around this university, expectations have been too low,” he fumed. “Unless we as players and coaches (change it) . . . it’s not gonna get changed from the outside. Everybody’s going to have 20 pats on the back before they get back to their house.

“We’ve got to expect more out of ourselves and we’ve got to get more out of ourselves, starting with the coaches.”

Leach didn’t duck responsibility, citing WSU’s three-way woes — belated offense, cheesecloth defense and shaky special teams — and adding, “And I think that’s coaching.”

The Cougars were nigh helpless to stop Scarlet Knights back Paul James, who blasted for 173 yards on 29 carries, including a 56-yard touchdown in the second quarter. If WSU has improved from last year’s ninth-ranked Pac-12 rushing defense, the one that gave up 187 yards a game in 2013, it wasn’t evident.

Here’s the discouraging truth for the Cougars: They’re going to face a lot better offensive teams than Rutgers in the Pac-12 this year, and a lot better quarterbacks than Gary Nova. It’s foolhardy to attach too much to one game, but if the Cougars can’t make some major improvement, WSU fans won’t need to block off the holidays for a second straight bowl trip.

This was the dilemma for the Cougars: They’re frightfully young and unproven in the secondary, so it’s hardly an option for them to sell out against the run by cheating a safety into the box when their front seven is getting abused. That became apparent when, on the first play of the game, fifth-year (but inexperienced) corner Tracy Clark got turned around by Leonte Carroo on a 78-yard touchdown.

It tells you something when Teondray Caldwell, a running back his first two years at WSU, gets switched to safety Aug. 17, and 11 days later — albeit having made a laudable transition — he’s in the starting lineup for the opener.

The night was a wild thrill ride for the skimpy crowd, which was about 10,000 fewer fans than the Cougars had drawn in any of their previous 11 CenturyLink appearances.

As Leach said, the WSU offense sputtered early, and for much of the evening, the Cougars were on their heels. Then Halliday and Co. heated up, brought WSU to within 21-17 at half, and in a blistering third quarter, the Cougars assumed a 31-24 lead.

Midway through the fourth quarter, WSU was poised to put a stranglehold on it, leading 38-34 and about to receive a Rutgers punt from the Knight 16. But receiver River Cracraft, adding punt returns to his duties this year, fumbled at midfield, and Rutgers marched it in to lead 41-38.

It was still eminently winnable for WSU, but the Cougars netted a mere first down. Halliday got sacked, and on fourth-and-13 at the WSU 38, he lofted a touch pass over the middle for Cracraft that would have been a first down, but Rutgers safety Johnathan Aiken pursued from behind and belted it out of Cracraft’s hands.

A year ago in its opener, the Cougars went to the steamy South and took Auburn to the wire before losing by a touchdown. The game gave WSU a jolt of confidence, and it was justified with Auburn’s run to the BCS title game.

This wasn’t that. The rebuild at WSU is long and painful. And far from finished.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.