Cougars show new grit in loss

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comSeptember 30, 2012 

We should have known it would be wild to bring Mike Leach into CenturyLink Field, the home of the improbable victory, the controversial upset ... where odds and expectations have been meaningless this week.

It made for an interesting first half, at least.

Westsiders got their first look at Leach’s “Air Raid” offense Saturday night when Washington State played host to No. 2-ranked Oregon in Seattle.

And they got an eyeful.

If it was unrealistic to think that Leach could make the Cougars competitive against powerhouse Oregon in his first season, it was at least hoped that he would bring an infusion of excitement.

A big crowd (60,929) of loud and enthusiastic fans was testament to the excitement.

And in early action, it was clear that the Cougars – like most of the teams in the Pacific-12 Conference – would have trouble dealing with the outrageous speed of the Ducks.

But Leach’s Cougars made some statements with their play as well as their attitude – not being intimidated in the least by the highly ranked Ducks.

And they showed the ability to make big plays on their own, too. It’s an encouraging sign for Cougars fans because WSU started four freshmen and three sophomores on offense.

Sophomore quarterback Connor Halliday is clearly picking up Leach’s pass-first scheme, and if he’s off-target at times, he’s nonetheless resourceful, fearless and tireless – throwing 30 passes in the first half alone. Halliday took over as starter in the third game after senior Jeff Tuel went down with a knee injury.

True freshman running back Teon-dray Caldwell also made a positive impression in his first start as a Cougar.

Although Caldwell fumbled away the ball on a first-quarter kickoff return, he came back to return one 92 yards to set up a 2-yard TD run by Carl Winston.

Caldwell, out of Los Angeles, had signed initially with Nevada but sat out last year. He shows the kind of speed the Cougars are going to need against the likes of Oregon.

The Ducks needed only four plays and a minute to score the first time on a 22-yard run by Kenjon Barner.

But the Cougars bounced back with a 15-play drive to a field goal – helped along by two Oregon pass-interference calls. The message was this: Halliday is willing to fire the ball to a receiver and let him go up and make a play for it.

Oregon stretched its lead to 20-3 with a 13-yard run by quarterback Marcus Mariota and a 30-yard pass from Mariota to Barner.

It’s at this point that a Cougars team that won only nine games in the preceding four years would start to lose its enthusiasm. Ah, yeah, here we go again.

But this team showed none of that.

Winston then scored on his short run, and Andrew Furney added another field goal before Halliday found freshman Brett Bartolone open up the left sideline on a 26-yard touchdown completion to trim the Oregon lead to 23-19 at halftime.

Suddenly, the Cougars were within reach of an Oregon team that was a 301/2-point favorite – on the same field where the Seahawks upset Green Bay on Monday night, and Washington downed No. 8-ranked Stanford on Thursday.

But the Ducks scored twice quickly in the third quarter, once on a 4-yard TD run by De’Anthony Thomas, and an interception return by Avery Patterson to open it up to 37-19. Barner added a 10-yard score to stretch it to 44-19.

A fear by some Cougars was that giving up a home game in Pullman to play the Ducks in Seattle would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

But an almost full house at Century-Link did not appear to include a large portion of Ducks fans.

Cougars athletic director Bill Moos said having a game at Century-Link has the potential for doubling the WSU profits. How much coach Leach appreciates giving away a home game at Pullman against the Ducks is open to interpretation.

But this crowd was worked up and supportive all night. And the only difference was that the Ducks had an easier trip to Seattle than to Pullman.

In the end, the young Cougars were defeated, 51-26, but staying close to the No. 2-ranked team in the country that long made it look like a loss to grow on.

dave.boling@thenewstribune.com 253-597-8440 @DaveBoling

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