When the Washington State Cougars hired Mike Leach, the college football world was abuzz with excitement at the possibilities. Leach looked like a perfect fit for a small school away from the hot lights of media scrutiny and the Cougars seemingly had the pieces to fit the eccentric coach’s Air Raid offense. The stage was set for a football revival in Martin Stadium and Coug fans everywhere couldn’t wait to see it.
But things did not go as smoothly in the transition as some people thought it would. It started with a disappointing season opener on the road against the BYU Cougars, where a Leach-led offense failed to score a touchdown for just the second time in the coach’s career. The rest of the non-conference schedule was equally unimpressive, though WSU came out on top in close calls against the FCS Eastern Washington Eagles and UNLV Rebels.
Then conference play started and things went south in a hurry. The Cougars hosted the Colorado Buffaloes for Homecoming and looked like they would get Mike Leach his first Pac 12 win right off the bat. However, Colorado rallied with three fourth quarter touchdowns as they downed WSU 35-34. After that, it was all downhill.
The loss to Colorado set off a seven-game losing streak for WSU that included three games where they scored fewer than 10 points, including two where they failed to find the endzone. The defense was porous, holding opponents under 30 points just twice during the losing streak and finishing the season with a scoring defense ranked outside the top 100.
On those rare occasions that the defense stepped up, the offense disappeared. Leach went back and forth at quarterback between Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, but not getting either one to step up and take control. The offensive line made it difficult to keep either of them healthy as they gave up more sacks than anyone in the country. Their running game was non-existent, averaging less than 30 yards per game, and the receiving corps was inconsistent in their effort, route-running and ability to make catches.
In short, nothing was going right. That adversity led to some frayed nerves, which led to Leach routinely calling out his players. He called out his quarterbacks for failing to grab hold of the position and leading the team. He called out his seniors for being “zombies” and going through the motions and verbally berated his offensive line and defense following a blowout loss to the Utah Utes.
Then there was the Marquess Wilson situation, where the star receiver walked out on the team and then levied allegations of abuse against Leach and his staff. It seemed like rock bottom for a season that had so much promise to begin with, now stuck in the same controversy that saw Leach unceremoniously booted from his job as head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
The season looked bleak without much positivity to build on going into his second year. Then the Apple Cup happened and Mike Leach’s off-season got turned right around again.
If he was going to only win one conference game this season (which he did), Leach picked the right one to win. Bringing the Apple Cup back to Pullman for the first time since 2008, handing Steve Sarkisian his first loss in the rivalry as head coach of the Washington Huskies and winning a type of game that WSU has lost all season long will do wonders to improve Leach’s end-of-year evaluation.
The team showed toughness and resolve that had been missing all year long. They battled back and won a game that they had let slip away against a very talented team. They ran the ball, scoring all three touchdowns on the ground after zero rushing touchdowns the previous six games. They rose up and met the challenge of the big moments rather than stumbling in them.
In short, they didn’t Coug it. Mike Leach has a lot of work left to do to turn this club around and make them legitimate contenders in the Pac 12, but he was finally able to get his team to play tough for 60 minutes. It’s a small thing, but it was enough to bring home some rivalry hardware, and it will be a positive step he can build on going forward.
Year one for Mike Leach in Pullman was rough waters, but there’s reason to hope that year two will be smooth sailing.