Cougs' Air Raid needs more to take flight

SEATTLE — The scoreboard reflected a 27-17 setback for the Cougars during Friday's Apple Cup. But the telling number was 5-2. That reflects the seasons Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has held his position in comparison with Mike Leach.

It also was the major difference between the teams. Sarkisian's five seasons have enabled him to recruit explosive players, such as running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Both might be in the NFL next year. Some mock drafts have pegged Seferian-Jenkins as a first-round pick, while Sankey could be an early selection, as well.

Meanwhile, Leach must focus on stringing together drives with a slew of possession receivers. That was not enough for the Cougars (6-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12) to seize momentum — and the game — when the opportunity presented itself.

WSU's defense was able to contain the Huskies (8-4, 5-4) throughout the first half. It was just a matter of which offense finally could capitalize on an opportunity. That happened when the Cougars started mixing in the run game — sophomore Teondray Caldwell had a 20-yard carry — and they later finished the 13-play drive when junior quarterback Connor Halliday found classmate Rickey Galvin for a 14-yard touchdown pass with 5:45 minutes left in the first half.

It looked like a momentum builder after WSU forced the Huskies to punt on their next possession. If the Cougars could have scored a touchdown to close out the first half, they could have taken a 17-3 lead into the intermission and gained the ball to start the third quarter.

That looked like a realistic scenario when WSU drove down to UW's 25-yard line. But Matt Goetz was cited for an illegal block, which pushed the Cougars back to their 35 with 7 seconds remaining. Instead of attempting a long field goal, Leach elected to go for it and Halliday was sacked by Hau'oli Kikaha to end the half.

It was a theme throughout the game. WSU could accumulate first downs — the Cougars had a 25-21 edge in that statistic — but they could not sustain possessions long enough to score. That was reflected in Halliday's statistics as he completed 32 of 59 passes for 282 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. That is an average of just 4.8 yards per attempt, or less than half of Price's (9.1) average.

AND IT WAS too much to expect the defense to contain Sankey the entire game. That was obvious during the Huskies' opening possession of the second half when he took a screen pass on third-and-5 for 40 yards. Price later found Seferian-Jenkins for an 18-yard touchdown pass that tied the game, 10-all.

"I thought that was pretty big," Leach said. "I think that first drive in the third quarter where we got them third and long — if we had kept them pinned back — it was going to increase the pressure on them and certainly the tempo of the second half. Then they converted and that was a huge play for them."

One hallmark of WSU's wins at Arizona and against Utah to open was its ability to respond to adversity. Every time those teams scored, Halliday would guide his teammates down the field.

But this time, the Cougars' offense seemed as listless as Lake Washington. Meanwhile, the Huskies continued to hand the ball off to Sankey, who rushed for 200 yards on 34 carries. His 7-yard touchdown run with 5:16 left in the third quarter gave his team a 17-10 lead. They later extended that to 20-10 late in the period on a 39-yard Coons field goal.

One of the few exceptions to WSU's inability to find the big play came in the fourth quarter, when Halliday faced a fourth-and-15 at UW's 39. He found sophomore Dom Williams for a 22-yard gain. After a personal foul was assessed against linebacker John Timu for hitting Williams in the head, the ball moved down to the Huskies' 8. Two plays later, Halliday found Williams for a 5-yard touchdown pass to cut UW's lead to 20-17 with 7:30 remaining.

WSU's defense then forced a punt and it seemed like the Cougars were poised to brand their opposing coach as "Seven-win Sark." After all, they found a way to overcome an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 31-28 a year ago. And UW quarterback Keith Price, who was intercepted in the red zone by senior cornerback Nolan Washington during the first half, and his teammates were making just enough mistakes to lose again.

On first down, Williams drew a pass interference that moved the ball to WSU's 28. But on the ensuing play, Halliday threw behind his receiver and the ball was intercepted by Gregory Ducre. Price later capitalized on the miscue when he scored on a 2-yard run with 2:08 left that effectively ended any Cougars' comeback hopes.

"It was a good read and a good idea, we just threw it behind him," Leach said. "Of course their guy made a good play."

The outcome left the program's seniors and others hoping to end the program's 10-year bowl drought as they vie for a postseason invitation. They also made substantial progress in nearly every statistic from Leach's first season, when they finished 3-9.

"Yeah, we definitely took a step forward," Halliday said. "The biggest thing would be our mentality. I know everybody in that locker room is hurting right now, just as much as I am. I don't know if that would have been the case last year or two years ago. The culture has changed, and Coach Leach know what he's doing."

But for the program to take the next step, it will require even more development and a keen eye for talent in recruiting. In the Air Raid, the Cougars need more receivers that have game-breaking ability when they need it most.

Imagine Jason Hill or Marquess Wilson beating UW defenders en route to the end zone late in the first half. Envision the same scenario earlier this season at Auburn or Oregon State. The Cougars are that close to taking the next step.

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