Halloween nightmare for Cougars

PULLMAN — Mike Leach is a guy who has occasionally expressed his fondness for pirate culture. So it would figure that he would also have a fascination for things like goblins, cobwebs and faces with three eyes and droopy jowls.

Indeed, Leach allowed recently that it was pretty cool that his Washington State football team was hosting Arizona State on Halloween night.

At least, right up until about when Arizona State kicked it off to WSU here at Martin Stadium, in front of, oh, maybe 20,000 people.

Not in their most chilling dreams could the Cougars have conjured up a monster mash like this one. They went three-and-out on their first three possessions, groped futilely at ASU ball-carriers all night long, and fell meekly, 55-21, to the Sun Devils.

I can’t imagine a worse advertisement for WSU football — ESPN TV at home for the first time in 23 years (ESPN without the “2” or the “U”), a lame effort, and a season-ticketholder section that was perhaps half full at kickoff. If you had to come from Spokane or the Tri-Cities on a Thursday night, would you blame them?

The students showed up in force, dressed in everything from nun’s habits to tiger suits. But by the second-half kickoff, perhaps nine-tenths of the students had cleared out, and there might have been 6,000 people in the place.

It must have looked positively seductive on TV.

ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly has a magician’s touch with the ball, and he continually kept defenders guessing. Doubt is not a friendly attribute to a beleaguered WSU defense, which allowed 359 yards in the first half, making it 1,676 yards in 10 quarters against Oregon State, Oregon and ASU.

Before the game, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, speaking at an impromptu media gathering, allowed as how there’s heavy sentiment in the league to “see the pendulum swing back a little bit” from the flood of night games in 2013.

Almost unnoticed, he slipped in a little zinger for WSU backers who might be discomfited by the Thursday-night date: He said “schools like Washington State have disproportionately benefitted” from the TV booty.

Truth be told, it’s hard to argue with that. So here was the trade-off: To get that new football-ops building, you’ve got to be shamed on national TV.

Anyway, if the night wasn’t bloodcurdling for the Cougars, it was at least weird, an attempt to mount a brief second-half comeback in front of a scrimmage-level crowd.

It started badly for WSU, which won the toss and as usual, elected to receive. Which, in recent weeks, merely means it’s not only trailing at half but kicking off in the third quarter.

The Sun Devils drove for touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and the Cougars began tallying a list of misadventures. Kristoff Williams dropped what would have been two early, profitable passes. And when the Cougars finally got first-down yardage on their fourth series, Gabe Marks fumbled the ball way.

ASU linebacker Carl Bradford couldn’t be blocked, and on one near-sack of Connor Halliday, the ball burped up and was corralled by offensive tackle John Fullington, who sought out a blocking wedge before officials blew the play dead.

WSU safety Taylor Taliulu was whistled for a targeting penalty late in the half and booted from the game.

In the third quarter, about when WSU was showing belated signs of a pulse, ASU successfully pulled off two fake punts. That might have been a bit much even for a guy of Leach’s bloodlessness.

When ASU got to 49 with considerable time left in the third quarter, it meant the Sun Devils had splashed a hundred (102, actually) on the state of Washington in their last two games.

The Cougars fell to 4-5, their first time under .500 since the Auburn opener, and it isn’t unfair to wonder if they’re getting better or worse as November commences.

Ghoulish thought, that. But what better night for it?