PULLMAN — The territory was familiar for Abraham Lucas. That didn’t make it any less uncomfortable.
Two-hundred seventy-three days ago, Washington State’s stalwart right tackle sat behind a Zoom screen in Salt Lake City and did his best to explain how the Cougars squandered a three-touchdown lead to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
During a 45-28 loss to the Utes, the Cougars were outscored 38-0 in the second half.
So, Saturday’s game against USC — one in which WSU led 14-0 in the second quarter — had to feel eerily, and painfully, similar for Lucas, who returned to Pullman this fall not only to improve his individual NFL draft stock, but also to help the Cougars establish a solid foundation under second-year coach Nick Rolovich.
During a 45-14 loss to the Trojans, the Cougars were outscored 38-0 in the second half.
The location, the matchup and the circumstances may have been different, but a visibly frustrated Lucas wore a familiar facial expression when he sat down behind a crimson backdrop to answer questions Saturday afternoon at Gesa Field.
“Here’s the thing, here’s my opinion and I’ll say it as clearly as I can,” Lucas said. “This is an interesting time for Cougar football, just because there’s a shift in culture. Now that’s not a bad thing necessarily. We had the COVID year, didn’t get to hit the ground running or anything like that. These things take time and they take time to build and they take time to build well.”
Saturday’s loss offered more reaffirmation that may not have needed: the building process is still in its infant stages.
WSU built something it could be proud of early in Saturday’s game, establishing a two-touchdown lead over a Trojans team that still looked out of sorts seven days after a blowout loss to Stanford and five days after firing eighth-year coach Clay Helton. But as common as it’s been for the Cougars to land a few early punches and get out in front early, their tendency to fold in the second half has been another staple of the Rolovich era in Pullman.
In six of Rolovich’s seven games as WSU’s coach, the Cougars have managed to construct a double-digit led but wound up winning only two of those, beating Oregon State 38-28 in last year’s opener and pounding FCS Portland State 44-24 last Saturday in Pullman.
WSU led No. 11 Oregon 19-7 in 2020 before being outscored 29-10 in the second half and losing by a score of 43-29. After securing a 28-7 second-quarter lead in Salt Lake City in last year’s finale, the Cougars gave up 38 unanswered points to lose 45-28. In the 2021 opener two weeks ago, WSU got out to a 23-11 lead before surrendering 15 points inside the final 5:25 to lose 26-23. In Saturday’s loss, the Trojans scored 45 points in the final 40:32 while keeping the Cougars off the scoreboard for the final 46:13.
Rolovich wasn’t necessarily conscious of the fact the Cougars have squandered four double-digit leads, but indicated the second-half breakdowns are something the coaching staff would diagnose before traveling to play Utah next Saturday.
“I didn’t know that, not sure how to answer that,” Rolovich said. “We’ve definitely got to pick up our red-zone game, our third-down offensively. We haven’t been great in backed up situations, but I appreciate you bringing that up and we’ll look at it and discuss it.”
The Cougars have outscored or matched the opponent’s second-half scoring in three games, against Oregon State (2020), USC (2020) and Portland State (2021). As for the four others? Against Oregon (2020), Utah (2020), Utah State (2021) and USC (2021), the Cougars have been outscored 126-27 in the second half.
Rolovich isn’t subscribing to the belief his team lacks the mental toughness needed to hang around in games when adversity strikes.
“I don’t think so,” Rolovich said. “I don’t think you put that assumption on these young men. I think I have to look at myself, we have to look at the coaching staff and see where we can get better and improve and put these kids in position to make plays and be successful.”
When it comes to who should accept the blame for WSU’s second-half meltdowns, there doesn’t appear to be a clear consensus among players and coaches. Wide receiver Travell Harris said in his own postgame interview that players — being the ones that are making plays, or not making them in the case of Saturday’s second half — should ultimately be held accountable.
“It’s definitely more player-driven,” Harris said. “Coaches can’t go out there and play, we have to go out there and play. So it’s definitely a player-driven thing. Like I said, making sure that everybody brings energy, making sure that if we are down, just being able to pick it back up. It’s the game of football, there’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs.”
Ups, downs and plenty of building.