For a while, it seemed like the Cougs had thrown off the malaise that had gripped the team since the second half of the Oregon State game. Things were looking up. The offense was rolling. The defense was doing enough to contain the Bruins. Good things seemed ready to happen. All seemed right in Cougar Land.
Even in the third quarter when the Bruins scored a touchdown to bring the score close at 28-21 after the Cougs took a 28-14 lead into the half, the Cougs bounced back. A career best 48 yard Loren Langley field goal extended the lead back to ten, and then Alex Brink closed out the third quarter scoring by bootlegging around the left end and diving into the endzone to put the Cougs up 38-21.
A seventeen point lead in the fourth quarter. At home. On Homecoming. It seemed safe. But then, this season no lead seems safe with this team. UCLA blanked the Cougs in the fourth quarter and rattled off seventeen unanswered points to tie the game with 44 seconds on the clock to take it into overtime. In the OT, the Cougs managed another Langley field goal from 37 yards, but a personal foul face mask on Eric Frampton gave UCLA first and goal from the Cougar 5. Soon after, Maurice Drew was in the end zone and the Cougars were left again stunned and wondering what went wrong.
You can't really point the finger at the offense on this one. After all, WSU hung 38 points in regulation on the 12th ranked team in the country and put up 499 net yards of offense. The offensive line is becoming one of the strengths of the team, allowing no sacks and creating room for Jerome Harrison to generate his second straight game over 200 yards. Way over 200 yards. Following a plan of "Give the Ball to the Ghost," Harrison turned 34 carries into 260 yards and two touchdowns. If your team wins, that gets you Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week honors. If you don't win, that and a couple bucks gets you a cup of coffee.
With Jason Hill back in the game the Cougar offense seemed to click for three quarters. Although not a deep threat, Hill just seemed to help things run better. Hill's 8 catches for 65 yards and a score helped Brink post respectable numbers of 19 for 33 for 169 yards, two passing touchdowns, one rushing score, and no picks.
But the fourth quarter. Ah yes. For the last three games, the Cougars have utterly collapsed in the second half and particularly in the final period of play. The Cougar offense sputtered, playing conservatively and trying more not to lose than to win the game. That's a formula for failure and was the downfall here. The conservative Cougs struggled late while the Bruins did what good teams do – they made second half adjustments that the Cougs failed to answer and aggressively set out to win. Three three-and-outs for the offense in the fourth quarter were devastating. Even one first down on one of those drives probably runs enough clock that the Bruin comeback falls short through lack of time.
Lately the Cougars have been a flashback to WSU teams of old. Harrison can get 260 yards, WSU can put up a total of 41 points with 500 yards, and the team can still lose. It wasn't so much the Cougar running game or what's going on up front defensively for WSU. The much vaunted Drew had less than 100 yards at the end of regulation and the Cougar defense was able to pressure UCLA in the pocket and account for four sacks.
No, the problem on Saturday was defensive penalties and the Cougar secondary. Despite the four sacks, Drew Olson was the third quarterback in three weeks to look like an early round NFL draft pick against WSU. Olson racked up five – count 'em, five – touchdowns against the Cougar secondary on his way to completing 31 of 43 attempts for 338 yards. That's 72% on completions. Three out of four UCLA passes were caught. Ouch. Make it stop, make it stop.
And the penalties didn't help. Take UCLA's first fourth quarter touchdown. It's easy to march 80 yards on four plays in 51 seconds when the defense coughs up three consecutive 15 yard penalties – albeit the one for roughing on Adam Braidwood was, well, bogus. On the next UCLA scoring drive, a pass interference flag gave UCLA a first down inside the Cougar 20.
The defensive front played better than recently with the return of Ropati Pitoitua, but without Will Derting the Cougar linebackers and secondary seem flat and extremely vulnerable. Without a doubt, the injuries to Derting and other players are taking a toll. Derting is out, Steve Dildine is playing hurt, Pitoitua is not yet 100%, and Mkristo Bruce and Braidwood are both playing hurt. Still, those players aren't primarily tasked with pass coverage. Run defense and pocket pressure were both there. The secondary has to step up and as a unit they have fallen short for the third Pac-10 game in a row.
At least Graham Siderius had the green light to kick deep. The dreaded pooch and squib kicks were not to be seen Saturday.
The mood of players and coaches was subdued, frustrated, and angry after the game, and the remaining schedule doesn't get any easier. The Cougs need quick answers for both defensive coverage and offensive lack of production in the fourth quarter. If those answers aren't found, it may be a return to the bad old days when an Apple Cup win helped salvage something good out of another lost season.
CougZone Player of the Game – Jerome Harrison and the offensive line: Harrison gets it for the third week in a row and is well on his way to making his mark as arguably one of the top running backs in the nation. He's getting a lot of help from an offensive line that is having a break through year.