PULLMAN – The beginning of the end for the Washington State football team’s bowl hopes – indeed, their hopes for a respectable season – took shape in the Cougars’ very first game.
On a steamy August evening in Provo, Utah, Washington State lost to BYU by a 30-6 score that was misleadingly close. WSU struggled to block, tackle, run the ball, catch the ball, protect the quarterback, defend the run, defend the pass and avoid costly penalties with any reasonable degree of efficiency.
Despite a coaching change, it seemed the Cougars could not erase the mental toll of 40 losses in the previous four seasons.
“We’ve got to be a mentally tougher team,” Mike Leach said after his first game as coach of the Cougars. “If something negative happens, we can’t have all these basset hound-looking faces on the sidelines.”
The Cougars won the next two weeks, but those were narrow victories over a strong Football Championship Subdivision team (Eastern Washington) and a weak Football Bowl Subdivision team (UNLV). Since then, the Cougars have lost eight in a row heading into Friday’s 12:30 p.m. season finale against visiting Washington in the annual Apple Cup.
“I don’t think you could write a movie for the way the season’s gone,” sophomore quarterback Connor Halliday said.
“Our best player (Marquess Wilson) leaving the team. Everything that’s transpired. All the drama, all the outside hoopla, all the plays that I haven’t seen in a junior high, YMCA Grid Kids kind of game.”
After a 49-6 loss to Utah (3-5 at the time) on Nov. 3, Leach compared his team’s lifeless play to “a zombie convention.” He described the effort level as “pitiful” and said the offensive line’s “heartless” play bordered on “cowardice.”
The following night, Wilson, WSU’s career receiving leader, walked out of a grueling conditioning session ordered by Leach. Six days later, Wilson released a statement that accused the coaching staff of “physical, emotional and verbal abuse.”
“Categorically denied,” Leach said.
Players have vouched for Leach and his staff, but WSU president Elson Floyd asked for a school and Pacific-12 Conference review of the football program. Findings have yet to be released.
Wilson is one of 19 players on scholarship known to have left the team since Leach’s arrival in December. Leach dismissed three potential defensive starters from the team prior to the season because of their run-ins with the law. Other players cited injuries or lack of playing time as reasons for quitting.
All the departures – not uncommon when a new coaching staff arrives – have factored into the use of 17 freshmen this season. Seven freshmen started in a 24-17 loss at then-No. 19 Stanford.
Leach said he expects more players to leave, voluntarily or otherwise, after the season. He had never experienced a losing season in 10 prior years as a head coach – all at Texas Tech, where his teams went to a bowl game every season – and he intends to start winning at Washington State.
“They’re trying to change the culture around here,” junior center Elliott Bosch said. “They’re pushing us very hard, like a good football staff should. I think they’re treating us the way a football staff should treat their players.”
Brett Bartolone, one of two true freshmen starters at wide receiver in Leach’s pass-heavy offense, said Leach is “a tough coach. He just wants to get the most out of his players.
“If you’re a hard worker and give 100 percent effort, it shouldn’t be any problem.”
Leach cites the team’s youth, difficulties in installing a new offense and defense, dismal offensive line play and the lack of senior leadership as prime culprits in a 2-9 season (0-8 in the Pac-12).
“We haven’t played a game I didn’t think we could win,” said Leach, who said he feels good about WSU’s future because of the high quality of its young players and the 2013 recruits.
That kind of optimism is in short supply now, but was abundant among players and fans after Leach was announced as Paul Wulff’s replacement. The reality is that Leach will finish with worse overall and conference records than Wulff posted last year in his final season as coach (4-8, 2-7 Pac-12).
Strong safety Deone Bucannon, who has repeatedly described the Cougars as “a great team,” was asked after Saturday’s 46-7 loss at Arizona State to explain why the season has been a disaster.
“Ultimately, I feel it was (a lack of players’) leadership,” Bucannon said. “The new coaching staff came in, it was hard to be the ones that want to step up, because the coaching staff was still incorporating new things.
“You know, I put it on myself. I’m a junior now. Early in the season, I should have spoke up. I’m not a big talker, but as an older player, I feel maybe I need to change what I’m comfortable with.”
A change in attitude – and results – is precisely what Leach is trying to accomplish. For $2.25 million a year, WSU fans probably think it’s the least he can do.
THE BAD, BAD NUMBERS
Washington State’s football team enters the Apple Cup on Friday on an eight-game losing streak, with an 0-8 record in the Pac-12 and two victories overall. A closer look at the Cougars’ troubles (rankings are out of 120 FBS teams):
Category Average Rank
Points per game 19.45109
Rushing yards per game30.0120
Sacks allowed per game4.82120
3rd down conversions 29.82% 118
Passes intercepted14 (total)t-20
Category Average Rank
Points allowed per game34.18102
Yards allowed per game440.1891
Opp. 3rd down conversions 46.43% 105