SEATTLE — Mike Leach wants to change the culture around the football team at Washington State. The necessity to do so was evident Thursday night.
The Cougars lost a wild 41-38 contest to Rutgers, a game that seemed to be in Washington State's grasp until the Scarlet Knights recovered a fumbled punt return and put together the game-winning drive in the final minutes.
"For too long around this university, expectations to perform and all that's been too low," Leach said. "Unless we as coaches, we as players change that ... it's not going to get changed from the outside. I mean everybody's going to have 20 pats on their back before they get back to their house. We got to change that. We've got to expect more of ourselves and we've got to get more out of ourselves."
Clinging to a 38-34 lead with 7 minutes left, the Washington State defense stopped Rutgers on three consecutive plays inside its own 20 to force a punt. River Cracraft fumbled the punt return at midfield and the Scarlet Knights fell on the loose ball.
Rutgers looked to Paul James on the winning drive. He ran six times, including the decisive 3-yard touchdown plunge with 3:24 remaining. James finished with 173 yards and three touchdowns in Rutgers' first game as a Big Ten member.
"We got to do it as a group, it's not individuals," Washington State's Connor Halliday said. "We got to come together as a group. There's no finger-pointing ... we didn't get it done as an offense. It's our job to go down and score, we didn't. That's a failure. We've got to figure out a way to go score."
Halliday did his part. The senior completed 40 of 56 passes for 532 yards and five touchdowns, but his fourth-down pass for Cracraft near midfield with 53 seconds left was batted away and the Cougars turned the ball over on downs.
"Coach Leach and all our coaches talk about building a legacy," Halliday said. "Well legacies are born on a drive like that. We got the ball with two minutes and a chance to go win it. We floundered."
The senior overcame a shaky start and was nearly flawless in the middle two quarters. After an early interception, Halliday connected on 15 of his next 21 throws the rest of the half, including touchdown tosses of 4 yards to Isiah Myers and a 26-yard flick to Vince Mayle late in the first half to pull Washington State to 21-17 at the break.
He was even better in the third quarter, leading the Cougars to a pair of touchdowns with nearly flawless efficiency. Halliday hit on 13 of 15 passes to start the second half, his only incompletions a throwaway under pressure and a drop in the end zone.
Gary Nova threw a 78-yard touchdown to Leonte Carroo on the first play from scrimmage, setting the tone for Rutgers' sixth win its last nine opening games. Meanwhile, Washington State has just one victory in its last nine openers.
Nova was 16 of 27 for 281 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but the Scarlet Knights rode James and the run game. James had 113 yards rushing in the first half and touchdown runs of 1 and 56 yards as Rutgers built a 21-10 lead.
"We figured that they don't see a whole lot of the run going against the air raid offense in practice," James said. "We focused on pounding the run and keeping running the ball and it started working."
Still, the Washington State offense almost had enough to overcome the Rutgers running attack. Halliday capped a 67-yard drive with a 5-yard TD pass to Rickey Galvin to give the Cougars a 38-34 lead with 8:13 left. The pass put Halliday over the 500-yard mark, but proved to be their final lead.
The game drew 30,927 to CenturyLink Field in what will likely be the Cougars last visit there in the foreseeable future. Washington State athletic director Bill Moos wants all home games on campus beginning next season and the crowd was the smallest to see a Washington State game played in Seattle.