By Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press
PULLMAN — At the midpoint of Washington State’s first season under head football coach Mike Leach, the Cougars remain a work in progress.
Washington State (2-4, 0-3 Pac-12) has problems all around, and so far has mostly failed to produce in the Air Raid offense that Leach made famous at Texas Tech.
The Cougars have twice been held without touchdowns, barely escaped FCS opponent Eastern Washington, and lost to Pac-12 doormat Colorado.
Talk of qualifying for a bowl game, prevalent after Leach was hired, is now muted.
“We’ve improved as a team, but we’ve had a lot of missed opportunities,” Leach said. “If we were a more mature, mentally tougher team, we could have capitalized on them.
“Right now we are a team that if we face any adversity, we get discouraged.”
As a result, many veteran players have been dropped from the starting lineup in favor of younger players, he said. Leach has described some of the team’s seniors as having an “empty corpse” quality when it comes to leadership.
The season got off to an inauspicious start with a 30-6 loss at BYU. The Cougars posted narrow wins over Eastern Washington and UNLV, then suffered a fourth-quarter collapse that allowed Colorado to overcome a nearly three-touchdown deficit and win 35-34.
They lost to No. 2 Oregon 51-26, and put in a sterling defensive effort in a 19-6 loss at No. 10 Oregon State.
Linebacker Darryl Monroe said the team is hungry for its first Pac-12 win.
“Any win is what we need,” he said. “It’s what any team needs.”
To get there, the Cougars need to play a complete game, with offense, defense and special teams all performing well, he said.
“We’ve just got to keep grinding throughout the season,” Monroe said. “No game is a gimme.”
The Cougars have six games left, starting this Saturday when they play host to California (2-4, 1-2).
Can they win four of those six to reach their first bowl game since 2003?
“I think it’s very realistic,” quarterback Connor Halliday said.
Halliday’s optimism aside, the better question might be whether the Cougars can achieve a record as good as the 4-8 that got former coach Paul Wulff fired after last season.
Problems include inconsistent play at quarterback and receiver, a non-existent running game and a defense that is surrendering 30 points and 455 yards per game.
Senior quarterback Jeff Tuel began the season as the starter, but has been displaced by Halliday, a sophomore. Neither has been able to consistently move an offense averaging just 21 points per game.
Both quarterbacks saw playing time against Oregon State, and Leach has said Halliday will start against Cal.
“He’s been playing the best,” Leach said.
Halliday has thrown for 1,284 yards and nine touchdowns, but has also been intercepted nine times.
More troubling is the lack of a running game. The Cougars average just 41 yards rushing per game behind a committee that includes Teondray Caldwell, Carl Winston and Leon Brooks.
“It means we are not able to move their front around,” Leach said of the lack of a running game. “We have got to get better up front.”
Star receiver Marquess Wilson has 34 catches for 553 yards and five touchdowns, which are good numbers. But Leach has been on him to do more, and is more likely to praise the efforts of Isiah Myers (29 catches, 272 yards) and Gabe Marks (24 catches, 379 yards).
Senior receiver Gino Simone, who has earned more playing time recently with strong performances, said he is optimistic about the second half of the season.
One major step would be to qualify for a bowl game, he said.
“That’s huge,” he said. “We want to get the program back to where it is in bowl games every year.”