PULLMAN – Nothing like a bye week to give the mind, body and soul a welcome break during a long and demanding college football season.
Well, unless you play for the Washington State Cougars.
Coach Mike Leach, who lambasted his receivers at Monday’s press conference, ordered a long series of sand-pit drills for receivers and quarterbacks after a sloppy two-hour practice Tuesday. Pass-and-catch work with footballs and tennis balls followed.
Inconsistent quarterback play and dropped balls have figured heavily in WSU’s 2-5 season (0-4 in the Pacific-12 Conference), particularly in the red zone. How the Cougars perform in red-zone workouts in practice may figure prominently in Leach’s choice of Jeff Tuel or Connor Halliday as the starting quarterback Oct. 27 at 22nd-ranked Stanford (Pac-12 Networks, 3:15 p.m.).
In 22 chances in the red zone, the Cougars have scored 68 percent of the time – 10 touchdowns and five field goals. That ranks 109th out of 120 teams in the nation.
“All of a sudden our fragile little receivers are going to go into the red zone and get frightened, so all of a sudden they can’t catch the ball,” Leach barked.
Does Leach mean the receivers are fragile mentally or physically?
Are they tough?
“Hell no, they’re not tough.”
None of the receivers are tough? Even Brett Bartolone, whom Leach raved about after the 31-17 loss to California on Oct. 13?
“He may be tougher than the rest of them,” Leach said. “At least last game he certainly was.
“Yeah, he did get after it last game. I thought he made some great plays, scored two touchdowns. Certainly ahead of his time as a freshman.”
Tuel is a senior, but he hasn’t escaped criticism from Leach. Leach did say Tuel played “really well” against California, and said there’s “no question” the plan is to start Tuel at Stanford if the quarterback takes advantage of the increased reps with the No. 1 offense that Leach said he plans to give him.
“I think people, including the players on this team, came into this year as, you know, ‘Oh well, it’s good, we’ve got Mike Leach, we’re going to throw for over 1,000 yards a game and whatnot,’ ” Tuel said.
“But, in reality, you’ve still got to work and go through reads and do the right things. We’re still working through those kinks a little bit now.”
Six of Leach’s 10 Texas Tech teams led the nation in passing. The Cougars are 12th in the country with 322.3 passing yards a game, but that’s partly because they’ve thrown the ball 351 times (a 50.1 per-game average). Only Akron (362) has attempted more passes.
Tuel, who sat out two games after suffering a knee injury in WSU’s second game, has played just one full game each of the past two seasons. Tuel said he’s due to graduate in May and has not decided whether he would play next season if the NCAA approves his medical redshirt appeal for last year, when he played in just three games.
The Fresno, Calif., native ranks seventh in WSU history in career passing yards (4,753) and passing touchdowns (30). His career completion percentage of 60.6 ranks first, and his 65.5 mark this year would be a school record.
Tuel, who started the first two games this season, has passed for 908 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions in five games. Halliday, a redshirt sophomore, has completed 52.9 percent of his passes for 1,348 yards, nine TDs and 11 interceptions in six games.
Tuel said the Cougars’ season has “obviously” been frustrating, but the team has not given up its bowl dreams.
“We can still win out,” he said. “It’s not out of the question. Teams have done it before.”