To judge by the Washington State Cougars’ seven straight wins to open their conference season, they made excellent use of the bye week that preceded that streak.
But the bye came early in the schedule. And the Cougars looked a bit drained as they played their eighth and ninth consecutive games without a break, losing both Pac-12 contests to take some luster off an impressive season.
As the Cougars ramp up preparations for the Holiday Bowl, coach Mike Leach, coping with an illness after WSU practiced in 20-degree weather, acknowledged the difficulty of the nine-game stretch without a bye.
It can’t be blamed for all the Cougars’ shortcomings. But it probably made them more glaring.
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As usual, Leach framed his observations in offbeat terms, in this case by lambasting those who assert the superiority of conferences such as the SEC and the Big Ten over the Pac-12.
“We went probably, with rare exception, the longest period without a bye week,” Leach said. “And then you consider we play in this conference nine straight weeks, against the competition we play. Our conference top to bottom is the best one. Our bottom five … let’s go play their bottom five. We would massacre them, and we would win out. And it (the boasts of other leagues) is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
Quirks in WSU’s schedule go a long way toward explaining its anemic finish. In addition to the early bye, the Cougars wound up playing the Pac-12 divisional champions in their final two games, losing 38-24 at Colorado and 45-17 at home against Washington.
But the drop-off in the Cougars’ performance was sharp. Their reactions were slower, their resolve weaker.
Even some of their favorite statistics took a hit. Luke Falk completed 74 percent of his passes through the Cougars’ first 10 games, then 57 percent in the final two. Four of his 10 interceptions came in those duds.
After leading the nation in completion percentage most of the season, the junior quarterback was edged by Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, .712 to .710. No indignity there, of course, but it seems symbolic of how the Cougars fell short of their highest ambitions.
As if to press the point, Mayfield for the second straight year nipped Falk for the Burlsworth Trophy, given annually to the nation’s premier former walk-on.
For some reason, the Burlsworth presentation ceremony got Leach’s goat.
“The same people show up every year; they hand it out in the same order every year,” Leach said. “They ought to call it something different. It’s, like, three guys that go out to dinner annually. They ought to call it, ‘Let’s Go Out to Dinner.’
“I like the guy,” he added of Mayfield. “I think he’s had a quality year.”
The Cougars’ defense, too, regressed during their final two weeks. After allowing 117 rushing yards per game through their first 10 outings, they gave up a combined 426 to Colorado and Washington.
Those ordeals magnified a problem that shadowed the Cougars (8-4) all season — actually, for several seasons: a tendency to squander strong individual moves by “failing to finish,” as second-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch puts it.
“In two years, that’s maybe my biggest disappointment,” he said. “I think we play hard in general. We’ve got a good group of guys. I think we’ve improved. I still don’t think we’re where we can be. And to do that you’ve got to be more productive. You’ve got to finish a TFL (tackle for loss). It’s not OK to be close. You’ve got to finish sacks. You’ve got to finish when the ball’s in the air. We’re not a great finish team. We just aren’t.”
That could be a problem against run-oriented Minnesota (8-4) on Dec. 27 in the Holiday Bowl at San Diego. The Cougars are favored by almost a touchdown, but their failure to finish — not just plays, but their 2016 season — should infuse their practices with extra impetus.
At least if Leach has his way.
“We have to improve,” he said. “We haven’t arrived anywhere. As far as I’m concerned, we’re lucky we don’t play the bowl today, because we have to get a lot better between now and then.”