THE DEFECT HAS simmered there all season, leaking a little each week but for the most part patched up and presentable enough for public viewing. Washington State's offensive line, mostly solid in pass protection but increasingly suspect in the ground wars, has been staggered by injury -- and a historical constant, that being WSU's trademark lack of experienced depth.
Mounting injury has taken out more than one football season in the Palouse. Now comes this year.
The patchwork o-line that Washington State covered up with over-achievement against USC and Oregon State finally, inevitably, could not provide both pass security and run blocking. Under pressure from the 10th-ranked Cal Bears -- plus a large early deficit dug by the Cougar offense and the punting unit -- Wazzu's revamped OL stumbled Saturday.
That's what usually happens when men lean on boys.
The boys will mature. Someday. A freshman and a sophomore are starters up front. For now they face a harsh reality of learning on the run, hoping to hell the center gets the ball back to the quarterback's hands.
The center-quarterback exchange is too many bobbles from automatic.
This line has a senior starter, Sean O'Connor, who knows the playbook as well as anyone in the program. He has to. He's already started in three different spots, meaning that he's playing out of position. Out of necessity.
Forget a breakdown in blocking schemes. I'd worry about a breakdown period. This could be a football first, a senior with an identity crisis, a guard who has to think like a tackle.
Seven games into the season, Wazzu has sent out seven different starting lineups from tackle to tight end. Seven games, seven adjustments. These guys deserve a medal for resilience and their mentor, George Yarno, a nod for creative coaching.
Still, the run futility in the trenches was glaringly exposed two plays into Saturday's second half in Martin Stadium when WSU running back Dwight Tardy ripped off a six-yard loss. That left the entire Coug running game with a stunning total of minus-three yards.
Until then, Dwight was merely tardy. Derrell Hutsona and DeMaundray Woolridge were actually absent -- at least absent from the game plan. Washington State's three-headed monster -- those three interchangeable running backs with diverse skills who served the team so well through the first half of the season -- had by the third quarter shrunk to abandonment.
What happened to the Three-D running attack with DeMaundray, Dwight and Derrell? First guess? Nowhere to run to, baby. Second guess, a too-soon and too-complete switch to an all-air attack.
WSU eventually picked up a game total of 88 yards, but almost all of that came on one burst of 70 by the third head, the monster who'd been all but forgotten: the fleet Hutsona.
His one-play romp ramped up the crowd but other than that served only to put the Cougs exactly where Cal wanted them -- at the five-yard-line, within hurtling distance of the end zone. Because they alternate between the line providing no forward surge and the backs not choosing the right path, the Cougs couldn't push it in for six.
Not against Cal.
Maybe against Cal Davis. Or Cal Coolidge.
Faced with fourth down from the one late in the third quarter against Cal Berkeley, quarterback Alex Brink tried to sneak for the TD. QB sneak from a yard out -- not a bad call.
But in executing it, Brink overplayed the hand. Charles Harris, shaking off a badly sprained ankle and affirming his place on the All-Tough team, lined up one spot inside, at guard, and proceeded to demolish his man. Andy Roof, at tackle, moved his target more than enough. But tight end Jed Collins only battled his man to a standstill, and Brink didn't recognize the right path quickly enough. The Cougs were turned away on the doorstep. Again.
At least Washington State has seen the worst of it. Cal is as good as advertised. So, chiefly, is the Washington State defense. Mkristo Bruce and the Sack Pack had minimal effect as pass rushers but Eric Frampton and the Coug defenders -- Sack Pack included -- shut out Cal in the second half.
Still, there were patches of weakness. Middle linebacker Greg Trent, was inconsistent on Cal running back Marshawn Lynch and the Bears' dependable up-the-gut interference. Impressive one play, maddeningly absent the next. Yet time after time the defense gave the Cougs a chance to steal some gains. Time and again the offense crapped out. That's hard to swallow, but it's not hard to understand.
It's not play-calling. It's not even settling on the right quarterback. The Cougs always -- O.K., usually -- go as far as their injury list allows. The injury news isn't good and it may get even worse. Receiver Brandon Gibson may be among the latest with some down time in his future. He had the game of his career shortened by a suspected ankle injury. D-lineman Mike Graise came out early. It's the tone of this year, that gloom lurks in every subsequent injury report.
At least Yarno, one of the nation's finest offensive line coaches, still has talent to work with -- and talent he has developed. Roof is a young guard who will grow into his job. Many are the youth who failed the midterm but passed the course with flying colors.
The goal, remember, is to end up on the high side of fifty-fifty. Grab a bowl date. Recapture a piece of the 10-win magic. Six wins, seven wins, eight wins, more. Could happen.
Always the qualifier. Unless the toll of the wounded piles up. If that happens, the decline and fall of a promising season probably isn't that far off. And should that come to pass, nobody should be blamed for it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Weaver has been following and/or covering the Cougars for the better part of 30 years. For the second straight season, the former Spokesman-Review sports editor and columnist is bringing his unique insights to Cougfan.com readers every week.