PULLMAN — During the week leading up to Colorado’s visit to Washington State, there was a good deal of dialogue about whether a certain football team could win a game this season.
At the moment, that still seems like a worthy question: Will the Cougars find a way to beat anybody that’s left on their schedule?
Against all odds — and they were 20-point favorites against the Buffaloes — WSU somehow found a way to cough up a 17-point lead in the last seven minutes and drop a 35-34 gut-ripper to the visitors.
“I don’t get it,” said WSU cornerback Daniel Simmons, more than once, as he tried to come to grips with what he had just seen. “In my opinion, we lost to a team we’re far better than.”
Maybe in some elements. Maybe in skill, but certainly not in smarts, and certainly not in sensing context of the game, and down-and-distance. WSU might have collegians on the field, but in some aspects of the game, they’re still in need of training wheels.
“The biggest thing is our mentality,” said WSU coach Mike Leach, whose team fell to 2-2. “When we get ahead, we want to relax and enjoy it, which is crazy. As coaches, we’ve gotta change it.”
For all the grueling conditioning Leach has implemented, all the diabolical “Midnight Maneuvers” WSU endured here in the dead of winter, it’s clear the Cougars are getting beat above the neck.
Some of that starts with coaching.
Hard as it is to believe, WSU led 31-14 with about eight minutes left, and was at the Colorado 19, fourth-and-three.
Leach has a reliable field-goal kicker in Andrew Furney, and he probably figured three more points would leave it a three-score game.
So he went for it, and Connor Halliday, who played poorly in the fourth quarter, appeared to have plenty of room to run for the first down (again), but threw an interception over the middle.
“We should have converted it,” Leach said when I asked about the call. “We had wide-open space underneath.”
About a half-hour later, those three points would have looked pretty good for WSU.
Five plays later, Colorado’s Nick Kasa had wide-open spaces in the secondary. The Cougars allowed the tight end to get behind them on a 70-yard pass play.
“I didn’t realize it was an ‘empty’ formation,” said safety Deone Bucannon. “I was on the wrong guy. It was totally my fault.”
A series later, Colorado (1-3) is backed up to its own 16 inside five minutes, and WSU linebacker Darryl Monroe lays a thundering hit on Jordan Webb, the CU quarterback, and Webb is so doubled over he has to leave the game, replaced by Nick Hirschman.
All together now, class, what does a little-used, fresh-off-the-bench quarterback usually do when he enters the game? He hands it off. Hirschman gives it to Tony Jones on a stretch play, linebacker Eric Oertel takes a bad angle and Jones bolts 84 yards down the right sideline, and suddenly it’s 31-28.
And as Leach would say, now it was panic time for WSU.
“Physically, we can run, we can hit people,” he said in what amounted to an exasperated, 10-minute tirade. “It’s gotta look like Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practices. We haven’t had a game yet that looks like Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practices. If we can do it (then), why the hell can’t you do it on Saturday?”
Of course, there were the obligatory couple of killer personal-foul penalties (Andrei Lintz, freshman Kache Palacio) and a chaotic defensive substitution by WSU that drew a flag. That made it seven second-half penalties, atop seven in the fourth quarter last week at UNLV.
And eventually, here were the Buffs — the team that was going to go winless this year — at the WSU 4, fourth-and-goal, 12 seconds left. They spread the field, Webb took the snap and sallied easily to his left and into the end zone on a quarterback draw. Will Oliver’s extra point completed it.
“They spread us out and made us back our eyes off the quarterback,” said Bucannon. “They made each one of us focus on the receiver.”
“That was a great call,” said Simmons.
A great call that squared the heartbreak the Buffs felt when the Cougars beat them in the final minutes last year in Boulder in the Mile High Miracle.
And so, here are the Cougars at 2-2, and only if you believe they can go 4-4 against their last eight Pac-12 opponents do they get to a bowl game.
That’s not happening. In the long, agonizing climb back to respectability here, it’s the matters of the mind where the Cougars are coming up a poor second.