PULLMAN – When Washington State athletic director Bill Moos hired his new football coach last winter, Moos stressed that Mike Leach was brought aboard not just to win games, but to attract fans with his prolific offense.
Midway through Leach’s first season, ticket sales, booster numbers and financial donations have all improved dramatically from a year ago.
Wins and offense? Not so much.
The Cougars rank 15th in the nation in passing (312 yards per game), but WSU’s passing, total offense and scoring averages are all down from last year’s final figures.
The 2011 Cougars, who finished 4-8 overall and 2-7 in the Pacific-12 Conference, padded their stats by opening the season with wins over two exceptionally weak teams – Idaho State and UNLV. The 2012 Cougars (2-4, 0-3) have already faced the same number of Top 25 teams as WSU played all last year (two), and Leach usually starts three freshmen in a new offensive system that players are still learning.
Still, WSU ranks 96th in total offense (353.3) and 98th in scoring (21.8) out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams officially recognized by the NCAA. The Cougars have thrown more interceptions (12) than any other team, partly because they’re fourth in pass attempts (288), fourth-from-last in quarterback sacks allowed (21) and next-to-last in rushing in attempts (124), yards (248) and yards per carry (2.0).
“We have a lot of youth,” Leach pointed out. “I think that’s part of it. Lately, we’ve faced some pretty good teams.
“We’ve just got to get better.”
Leach has made it clear that one aspect of the game where the Cougars desperately need to “get better” – on offense and defense – is mental toughness.
“We play nervous,” Leach said. “We play tight.”
Senior wide receiver Gino Simone said the Cougars have practiced better than they have played.
“Guys get all tight come game time,” Simone said. “But you go out and watch us practice, we’re moving the ball up and down the field and making plays.
“So it’s just about getting to game time and just relaxing and making plays and going out there and having fun like we do in practice.”
Simone said he agrees with Leach that he was one of the players who, until recently, was not playing up to his potential because he was wound too tight.
“This staff has been great,” Simone said. “They came in and put a great deal of focus on making guys confident and allowing guys to play fast and not worry about making mistakes.
“When you play fast and don’t really have a worry, better things can happen for you.”
Twice the Cougars have been limited to six points on a pair of field goals, and twice WSU has finished with negative rushing yards. Leach said he “absolutely” wants to boost WSU’s running game, but the offensive line (with two former walk-ons starting) has struggled.
Leach termed WSU’s offense “a disaster” last Saturday. The Cougars amassed just 227 total yards and had five turnovers (including four interceptions) in less than 21 minutes of possession time in a 19-6 loss to the then-No. 14 Oregon State Beavers.
“They definitely played well,” WSU quarterback Connor Halliday said of the Beavers’ defense, “but a lot of it was us shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Halliday was speaking for the team in general and himself in particular. The redshirt sophomore from Spokane completed just 9 of 20 passes for 81 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions.
Leach twice pulled Halliday in favor of former starter Jeff Tuel, an injury-plagued senior who ranks among WSU’s all-time leaders in several passing statistics. Leach said Halliday will start Saturday against visiting California (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
“He just needs more reps, more experience, and learn from experience,” Leach said.
Leach said he meets with Halliday “all the time to try to get him settled down.” The coach said Halliday has a tendency to “start pressing, try to put too much on his shoulders, start pulling the trigger too early and hurrying stuff up and trying to make too much happen.”
“He’s going to take some chances,” Simone said. “He’s a gunslinger, and I think he’d say the same.
“Jeff has a little more mobility and can get out of some things (by scrambling). Either way, I’m confident in both of them.”
Simone said he’s “extremely optimistic” about the second half of the season. A growing number of Cougars fans wish they could share Simone’s optimism.