New Washington State coach Mike Leach says his team is closer to playing well than his players might think.
He says it’s just a matter of eliminating the bad, being a bit more consistent with the good, and remaining confident.
”We’ve got to be a mentally tougher team,” Leach said following a 30-6 loss Thursday to Brigham Young. ”When something negative happens we can’t have all these basset hound-looking faces on the sidelines.”
Washington State only crossed midfield six times and got inside the red zone only once.
”Any time we were about to ignite or catch fire something negative would happen,” Leach said.
Leach’s normally high-powered Air Raid offense remained grounded, failing to score a touchdown for only the third time in Leach’s 10-plus-year coaching career.
”We squandered too many plays. We’d get a play or two going and look pretty good and then we’d squander two more and never really got into a rhythm.”
BYU senior quarterback Riley Nelson threw for two touchdowns and third-string quarterback Taysom Hill added another on his first collegiate pass to spoil Leach’s return to coaching.
BYU intercepted Jeff Tuel twice and sacked him three times while limiting Leach’s vaunted attack to 224 yards total offense.
Washington State finished with minus-5 yards rushing.
Nelson finished 25 of 36 for 285 yards. Tight end Kaneakua Friel led BYU with six catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
Washington State came out passing as expected, with Tuel starting 8 of 9. But his 10th pass was intercepted by Uona Kaveinga, and the momentum shifted to BYU before a ”white-out” crowd.
It was Leach’s first game since being fired by Texas Tech in 2009 amid allegations he mistreated a player with a concussion.
While there was much buzz about his return, against his alma mater, the results were the same for Washington State.
Leach never played football at BYU, but he gained inspiration for his spread passing attack from LaVell Edwards, for whom BYU’s stadium is named.
At one point in pregame interviews, Leach said his team looked more like BYU of old than BYU.
Not on Thursday.
The BYU Cougars rolled up 426 yards offense, nearly twice that of Washington State.
Nelson started slow but finished strong.
After Kaveinga’s interception, Nelson engineered a 10-play, 80-yard TD drive to give BYU a 7-0 lead. He had two big third-down completions to Cody Hoffman on the drive, for 28 and 12 yards, and found Skyler Ridley open for the 7-yard scoring pass.
Hoffman, BYU’s leading receiver in 2011, bruised his left quad on the 12-yard catch and did not return.
BYU’s second touchdown came with Hill in shotgun formation as the wildcat quarterback. The freshman faked to the runner in motion left then scrambled right, and found tight end Friel wide open for an 18-yard TD. It gave BYU a 14-0 lead with 13:26 left in the half.
Andrew Furney’s 47-yard field goal put Washington State on the board with 10:42 left in the second quarter and he added a 41-yarder just before halftime after a TD pass to Marquess Wilson was nullified by holding.
BYU found one way to keep Leach’s offense off the field – long drives. BYU’s three first-half scoring drives were all 10 plays or longer, the third going for 16 and capped by Riley Stephenson’s 28-yard field goal.
BYU’s defense, meanwhile, played up to its billing, holding Washington State to just 3 yards rushing in the first half, and limiting Tuel to 108 yards passing.
Brigham Young had some new players step up.
Ridley, a former scout team player, was in only because Hoffman was injured midway through the first quarter.
And Jordan Johnson, who returned an interception 64 yards to set up a third-quarter field goal, was making his first start at cornerback. His last start, in 2009, had been at quarterback in high school.
On the other sideline, Leach wasn’t having much fun.
The Air Raid attack had served him well at Texas Tech, where he was 84-43 with 10 bowl appearances. It went nowhere. The last time a Leach team failed to score a touchdown was in Texas Tech’s 12-3 loss to TCU on Sept. 16, 2006.
The man dubbed the ”Pirate of the Palouse” has a $2.25 million contract but there is a ways to go to bring Washington State back to respectability in the Pac-12.