By Brent Stecker
There are easier roads to take heading into a game against No. 2 Oregon in Eugene than the one Washington State is on.
The Cougars are coming off a disappointing 52-24 loss to Oregon State at home, a resounding defeat that got out of hand when the Beavers ran off five unanswered touchdowns in the final 16:03 of game time. And with the battle against the undefeated Ducks looming, the 4-3 Cougars have things to address this week.
Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday will try to shake off his three-interception performance against Oregon State when the Cougars head to Eugene to play the No. 2 Oregon Ducks Saturday. (AP)
The biggest question mark is quarterback Connor Halliday, who was as Jekyll and Hyde as they come against Oregon State. He completed just 26 of 49 attempts for 248 yards and one touchdown, and his fourth quarter was disastrous as he was picked on three successive drives.
“It is apparent he can play better. I thought he played really well for three quarters … (but) he tried to make too much happen,” coach Mike Leach said Monday. “He had a bad fourth quarter, but the whole team had a bad fourth quarter. … You just have to hang in there. You don’t have any choice if you are going to play quarterback. You really don’t have a choice. I’ve had some of the best quarterbacks in the country, and I can’t think of any of them that haven’t had a bad game or, some point in their career, one like that.”
While Halliday (14 touchdowns, 13 interceptions this season) is trying to find consistency, his counterpart from Oregon, Marcus Mariota, is a Heisman front-runner that has yet to commit a turnover in 2013 and is coming off a Pac-12 Player of the Week performance in a 45-24 win at Washington.
“He runs the ball well, throws the ball well,” Leach said of Mariota. “The ability to do both things I think is his most impressive thing. Occasionally, he is a little streaky … (but) they are usually ahead when that happens.”
Leach said the Cougars panicked defensively at times against Oregon State and its quarterback, Sean Mannion, which is something they simply cannot do against the Ducks.
“II think both sides of the ball tried to make too much happen and one over-correction led to the next,” he said. “I thought we let them off the hook very quickly. I thought we struggled all day on defense, and then as soon as we turned the ball over, we couldn’t stop them even worse on defense and we unraveled. … We just have to be a sharper unit from top to bottom.”
Cougars linebacker Darryl Monroe said the defense needs to allow itself time to breathe to avoid letting things get out of hand.
“It’s nothing major, nothing about talent or effort, it was just the fact that there was not a moment in time where we actually settled down and just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s make a play.’ We were just a little bit too frantic,” Monroe said.
Preparing for the nation’s top-ranked offense is an especially tough challenge, but Monroe believes it won’t be much different considering the types of offenses the Cougars have already faced.
“So far this whole season our coaches have done a great job of getting us ready for explosive teams, up-tempo offenses and everything. The only thing that I would say about getting ready for them is just keep doing what we’ve been doing and keep trusting our coaches,” Monroe said. “My experience from playing against (the Ducks) last year, they’re really good at what they do. They minimize their mistakes, and if you can minimize your mistakes on offense, it makes it really hard for the defense to not make a mistake.
“They’re a team that if you don’t fit the gap right or you go to the wrong side of a block, or you just don’t fit one thing correctly, they have the opportunity to take a five-yard play 90 yards.”