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Originally published December 23, 2013 at 2:02 PM | Page modified December 23, 2013 at 10:27 PM

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Mike Leach: Cougars are “a little better team than we believe we are”

Washington State heads into the offseason after its 48-45 loss to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl. Coach Mike Leach says his team is “improving all the time,” and needs to believe in itself.


Seattle Times college football reporter

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Today, Washington State fans, we know that what you really need is succor. Alas, we can offer only symmetry.

A year ago, the Cougars went into the offseason buoyed by their slog back from an 18-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win the 2012 Apple Cup. A year later, WSU faces the winter having coughed up 18 points in the last three minutes to lose the New Mexico Bowl in gut-shot fashion to Colorado State.

You don’t even have to say thanks for that nugget.

Twelve months ago, the party line was that the Washington win made the winter workouts a little more palatable. Now we’ll find out if exasperation also provides motivation.

“It stinks,” said WSU offensive lineman Joe Dahl after the 48-45 loss. “It’s going to stay with us all the offseason. I think we’ll all use this to make sure we don’t have a feeling like this again.”

The Cougars (6-7) advanced miles in 2013, getting to a bowl game for the first time in 10 years, even if coach Mike Leach stretched credulity by saying, “We won at least four games more than everybody thought we were going to win, or so.”

The next step will be against a nonconference schedule in 2014 that includes Rutgers (the opener in Seattle), Nevada (on the road) and Portland State. The home Pac-12 schedule will be attractive — Arizona, California, Oregon, USC and Washington.

For starters, WSU could trim its massive turnover total of 35, and you’d guess that will happen. Quarterback Connor Halliday seemed ever more comfortable down the stretch, throwing a manageable six interceptions in the last five games.

Halliday ought to know his receivers. The top 10 pass-catchers figure to return.

An offensive line that improved in 2013, but was still far from superior, will need to replace three starters on the right side. A couple of replacements could be redshirts Cole Madison of Kennedy High and 6-foot-8, 345-pound Cody O’Connell of Wenatchee.

The defense needs a soul-search. Only three Colorado State opponents allowed the Rams more than the 595 yards WSU surrendered last week. This was the same CSU team that was shut out at Utah State on Nov. 23.

Pass coverage, playing in space and simple speed are still issues. That was a Pac-12 cornerback, Damante Horton, losing ground to a Mountain West running back, Kapri Bibbs, on Bibbs’ 75-yard touchdown run in Albuquerque.

Perplexingly, sacks were down severely, from 35 to 21, although the only major loss was Travis Long.

Deone Bucannon, the all-American safety, leaves a hole, and the No. 2 tackler, linebacker Justin Sagote, departs as well. Tacklers Nos. 3-8 should be back.

The popular narrative is likely to be that WSU’s offense will be dangerous, but so might its defense, not in a good way.

It’s up to the Cougars to change half that.

Leach frequently cited WSU’s youth, but that’s somewhat overstated. There are younger teams in the Pac-12, as the Cougars lose eight senior starters, not counting their most reliable distance kicker in history, Andrew Furney. WSU needs to replace him, as well as shore up a punting game that was occasionally disastrous.

Asked at a bowl practice to name redshirting players who had shined this season, Leach cited, to varying degrees, Madison and O’Connell, outside linebacker Ivan McLennan, defensive linemen Daniel Ekuale and (lately) Gerald Sterling, safety Darius Lemora, linebacker Peyton Pelluer (Skyline), center Sam Flor (O’Dea), running back Jamal Morrow, slot/return man Robert Lewis and quarterbacks Tyler Bruggman and walk-on Luke Falk.

“We’re improving all the time,” Leach said. “It starts with a certain level of belief. I honestly think that, across the board, we’re a little better team than we believe we are.”

Now comes the offseason. Belief might have to begin with the conviction that the Cougars are a lot better than they showed in the misbegotten final three minutes in New Mexico.

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




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