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Originally published September 28, 2012 at 8:03 PM | Page modified September 28, 2012 at 8:12 PM

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Cougars have been inconsistent in coach Mike Leach's first four games

New Washington State coach Mike Leach has been criticized for his play-calling late in games and has been critical of his players, saying they were "afraid to win."

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Saturday

Oregon vs. WSU, CenturyLink Field,

7:30 p.m., ESPN2

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About the time of his uncomfortable dismissal late last November, Paul Wulff had a veiled parting shot for his unknown successor as Washington State football coach.

He said there was talent enough to win eight or nine games. In 2012.

So here's the Washington State football program at 2-2 before its annual game at CenturyLink Field on Saturday night, and because that's against No. 2-ranked Oregon, you'd have to say the prospect of a next step toward eight wins is treacherous.

Coaches are picky about their particular assets. On multiple levels, Wulff ripped what he was left by Bill Doba. Wulff's successor, Mike Leach, has been much more circumspect, but when he said last week they were "afraid to win," he was in essence bagging on the fragile psyches Wulff bequeathed him, byproducts of a regime that went 9-40.

Seven days ago, after the Cougars burped up a 31-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter and lost to Colorado, Leach cited his team's weak mentality. Forty hours later, he addressed that felony inconsistency, saying, "We play hard selectively. Well, that's crazy."

About then, the thought occurred to me: What if there's nothing left to be squeezed out of these guys? What if this is as good as they are?

Leach doesn't buy that, which ought to be refreshing for Cougars fans: "Hey, we've got plenty; we've got enough," he said. "(Sometimes) you turn on the film, it looks like gears in a machine. At other times, it just looks like bodies flying around."

A third of the way into his first season, then, what does WSU have in Mike Leach? I think they've got somebody with swagger whose driving passion right now is to embed that trait in a team whose most defining characteristic is losing.

It's there where Leach wants to take the Cougars places they haven't been, and that might speak to clock-management decisions the past two weeks that have some fans mumbling about his $2.25 million annual deal and buyer's remorse.

There was a curious series against UNLV. And last week, fourth-and-three at the Colorado 19, ahead 31-14, Leach turned his back on a field-goal try and went for it, but Connor Halliday didn't pick up a wide-open Teondray Caldwell in the flat and threw an interception over the middle.

"Funny," Leach said when I asked about it this week. "People view field goals as automatic and fourth downs as impossible. I don't have any second-guesses on going for it."

Later, with a 31-21 lead and second- and third-and-16, with 5 ½ minutes left, Leach was still chucking it, unsuccessfully. Except perhaps for the third-down throw, I don't fault it. Passing is what WSU does best, and playing timidly is not in Leach's DNA. Remember, this is a man who once beat Nebraska, 70-10.

Big picture, I think we can say conclusively that Wulff left Leach good quarterbacks and good receivers. There are pockets of talent elsewhere — notably linebacker Travis Long — but much of the rest of it is a grab bag, including both lines. When push came to shove against Colorado, the Buffs were beating WSU with two- and three-man rushes and stuffing the run.

Meanwhile, this is a coaching staff still adjusting to its players, and in that vein, Leach to Halliday. The quarterback was making his third career start last week, and is inclined to try to carve the ball into windows as slender as a runway model. Leach would sometimes prefer the path of least resistance, the check-down to the back for 5 yards.

"We should have been a little more patient," Leach said. "I should have done a better job communicating with Connor. As we were starting to have some mishaps, Connor tried to make a little too much happen. I should have recognized that and kind of reined him in a little bit."

All over the program, the growing pains are apparent. Players seem to fade in and out of favor quickly, probably the result of Leach and Co. trying to sort out what they've got.

Taylor Taliulu is a promising freshman safety who was all over the field against BYU. Then he struggled against Eastern Washington, and he's hardly been on the field from scrimmage since.

In spring, Andrei Lintz enthralled Leach with his receiving ability. He's caught two passes for 14 yards and is listed third-string for the Oregon game. If asked to come up with five names who have played consistently well, I'm guessing Leach would start with Long and then labor to come up with the other four.

Heck of a way to get to eight wins.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com


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