PULLMAN — Mike Leach talks about “clusters,” the idea that good football teams follow a positive development on offense with another one on defense, or maybe a big return or blocked punt on special teams.
It was very nearly a cluster here Saturday for his Washington State football team, which took all of Eastern Washington’s best shots in a 24-20 WSU victory, Leach’s first at the school.
In fact, the game ended in pulsating fashion, with a gaggle of players in the end zone — there’s your cluster, coach — leaping for the “Big Ben” pass of Eastern’s Kyle Padron, the throw from the WSU 32 that was going to visit all sorts of dire judgments on the Cougars if it came down in the right hands.
It didn’t, but it took WSU’s standout receiver, Marquess Wilson, sent into the game in a defensive emergency, to help bat it down.
Summing up his first afternoon on a Palouse sideline, Leach said pridefully, “There’s a personality here that doesn’t exist in other places.”
Cynics might say that persona also reflects the ability to turn what was looking like a comfortable 17-point lead inside six minutes into a jump-ball scrum at the wire that, let’s face it, could have torpedoed WSU’s season.
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Leach said about the notion the Cougars should have established control in the second half. “We’ve got to be a team that puts ‘em away.”
But Eastern Washington does that to people. Washington fans remember how the Eagles were throwing into the end zone on their last possession in the 2011 opener to win that one, much as they did against the Cougars.
“Hats off to Eastern,” said Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel, who left in the final quarter with a knee problem not thought to be serious. “They played hard and tough. First thing coach (Leach) said when we watched film was, ‘These guys play how we want to play.’ “
The Cougars had four second-half drives into Eastern territory, but whiffed on all of them.
The most galling was down at the goal-line — with the same 24-14 lead they had at half — when freshman back Teondray Caldwell tried to lunge the ball over the plane and fumbled it away, erasing what would have been a 31-14 lead with 5:42 left.
Soon, the Cougars were on their heels and Padron had the Eagles in the end zone with 2:17 left. WSU got the ball back, and after holding calls nullified two long touchdown plays, the Cougars faced third-and-15 at the WSU 48 with 1:44 left.
There, Leach showed himself either to be bold or reckless, as Connor Halliday threw incomplete for freshman slot Brett Bartolone rather than hand the ball off and burn more clock.
“Aw, it was a few seconds (forfeited),” Leach said. “We had the running back wide open underneath. We should have dumped it to him.”
Leach’s point about the Cougars’ inconsistency was no more evident than on Eastern’s third series. The Eagles were at their 7-yard line and hadn’t so much as wedged out a first down. But Padron threw deep for Brandon Kaufman down the WSU sideline, Cougars corner Nolan Washington shielded him as they ran out of bounds and then seemed to stop as Kaufman kept going, gathered the ball in and sprinted for a 93-yard touchdown play.
“I know I have a ballclub that no matter what the situation,” said Eastern coach Beau Baldwin, “we aren’t quitting.”
And so it went. The Cougars kept playing two-steps-forward-one-step-back, and the missteps were enough to yield Eastern first downs. Meanwhile, WSU turned to the running game — 23 carries combined from Caldwell and Carl Winston — because the Eagles were playing deep zone defense.
Even Andrew Furney’s 60-yard bolt of a field goal as the half ended, giving WSU a two-score lead and a psychological lift, couldn’t stay the Cougars from a quantum scare.
On that final play, they stationed five defenders back near the goal line. Because of Wilson’s insertion on that side of the ball, they call it “Victory.”
It was the perfect first one for WSU’s unconventional coach — convincing yet tenuous.