ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mike Leach, Deone Bucannon and Connor Halliday sat on a podium, trying to explain the inexplicable, when a well-meaning New Mexico Bowl operative interrupted the proceedings.
The young woman relayed that Halliday had tied an all-time bowl record, any bowl, with six touchdown passes. Unfortunately, she didn’t attempt to assess where Washington State’s finish here against Colorado State stands on the list of postseason choke jobs.
It must be near the top, for the Cougars dribbled away a 15-point lead in the last three minutes and somehow lost to CSU, 48-45, defying logic, odds and — most of all — good sense to put an ugly blemish on what had been a pretty nice football season. It ends at 6-7.
Anything WSU was going to say wasn’t going to be enough, but Leach, the coach, said things like, “Colorado State finished the game; we didn’t. We’ve got to be a tougher team … I think there was a sense of relaxation in the fourth quarter, which we paid a heavy price for.”
Leach said it was on the coaches as well as the players, that they’re all in this together.
If he had echoed what a lot of the Cougar fan base is thinking right now, he might have added that bizarre clock management and some dubious play-calling made for an absolutely toxic mix.
To Leach, clock management is setting an alarm to get him up in the morning. He wants to attack, to play with panache, to have a team that doesn’t back down. And he’s infused the Cougars with a resolve that helped them to a bowl game.
But the swagger bleeds into hubris, which sometimes morphs into fool’s choices, which on this day, ends with Colorado State fans spilling onto the field, unable to believe their good fortune.
Merry Christmas, Rams.
It was one thing for the Cougars to fumble twice in the last two minutes — kids making errors of execution. Stuff happens, unbelievable though it was. But it’s another thing to make decisions that put the whole thing at risk.
With 2 minutes left and WSU clinging to a 45-37 lead, Colorado State was out of timeouts. Somehow, the Cougars decided the best play was a fake to a running back and run a keeper by Halliday, who can’t run. And they were lucky his fumble was overturned on a hairline review.
Leach was vague about whose idea that was, saying, “I just think we could have selected things better. Thing is, we should have thrown it, attacked them and got first downs.”
Here’s another option: How about taking three straight knees? Halliday’s “fumble” came at 2:01. If he takes a knee at 2:10, and then two more, it’s questionable whether WSU ever would have to snap the ball again. At most, a few seconds are left.
Leach wouldn’t have any of it.
“We shouldn’t have messed with any of that,” he said. “OK, fine, use the clock. We should have attacked them and got first downs, and then we should have protected the football.”
So, should they have attacked in the last minute of the first half after Halliday was sacked back at his 10 with a 35-20 lead?
Whenhe threw an incomplete pass to the flat — on third-and-21, yet — instead of squeezing the clock, it enabled CSU to come back with a field goal as time ran out.
Let’s see, would those three points have been of use about two hours later?
Instead, the Cougars kept throwing and the Rams, doughty all day, kept coming. If Washington State didn’t get outplayed, it surely got out-coached in a game it should have won by a couple of touchdowns.
Something kept Colorado State hanging in doggedly, while on the Cougar sideline, the victory party started prematurely.
“I just think we got too complacent; we kind of thought we won the game pretty early,” said linebacker Justin Sagote, who finished his college career with 15 tackles.
And when Washington State didn’t kneel it, Jeremiah Laufusa’s fumble led to a tying Colorado State score with 33 seconds showing.
And then Teondray Caldwell’s fumble on the ensuing kickoff led to the climactic field goal.
It was left for Leach to ask “What the hell kind of question is that?” to a query about the wisdom of handing the ball off for the first time all day to a “cold” Laufusa, and for him to blow off his postgame radio show, unwilling to wait the last seconds while a station break was completed.
From the breadth of the 2013 season, we know that Washington State will have better days than this one.
You’d like to think Leach, whom it’s paying $2.25 million a year, will as well.