Cougs look to sharpen up on third down

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PULLMAN - Washington State will be introducing a new side bet in practice this week.

Dismayed by the Cougars' 7-for-28 showing on third down this season, coach Mike Leach will be foregrounding those situations in offense vs. defense drills, presumably with up-downs or other punitive measures planned for the loser.

"We're going to feature (third downs) and make them competitive," Leach said Monday in his weekly news conference.

Coming off a convincing but flawed 31-0 win over visiting San Jose State last week, the Cougars (2-0) remain at home to play Eastern Washington on Saturday (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) at Martin Stadium.

The Cougs converted on only two of 13 third-down situations Saturday and are now tied for sixth-to-last in the country in that statistic. They're offsetting some of that deficiency by going 7-for-9 on fourth down, but even Leach - known for rolling the dice in last-chance situations - would prefer to avoid that sort of drama.

"I think we get in third-and-long too often," he said. "The quick answer is consistency, but we have to be better on third down. Right now we probably lead the nation in time of possession (actually they're tied for 15th), a stat that I don't value at all, although to some people it's the greatest stat in the world. I would definitely swap that for (being) better on third downs."

The Cougs also want to avoid the touch of complacence they displayed on offense last week after darting to a 24-0 halftime lead. After the game, Leach questioned the toughness of his receivers and running backs. Even gifted wideout Tay Martin, who caught touchdown passes on the Cougs' first two possessions and nearly pulled off a remarkable end-zone grab for a third score, "was invisible the second half," the coach said.

But he was less critical Monday.

"We had a really good first half," he said. "We just have to finish the second half. There's a whole lot of teams that aren't tough any half, on any side of the ball. But we need to improve. That's one thing, these last couple years, our team's been really good at, is improving from one week to the next."

Asked about his offensive linemen, who haven't allowed a sack this season, Leach said they too played well before halftime but then "got too satisfied, which is ridiculous. It doesn't take too many guys on offense to do that. Bear Bryant used to say, 'On defense you have to stop them 50 percent of the time, because the offense will stop themselves the other half.' And we stopped ourselves too often in the second half."

Defense was a different matter. The Cougars, who rank second in the country in total defense, fashioned their third shutout in their last 15 games and held San Jose State to 109 yards, the fourth-fewest in WSU history. Only 9 of those yards came on the ground, the fewest for a Wazzu D since 2006.

The Cougars now face Eastern Washington for the first time since an embarrassing 45-42 loss to that FCS team two years ago. The game marked the starting debut of EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud, who is now a senior. The Eagles (2-0) of Cheney, Wash., are ranked No. 6 in the FSC.

Leach was asked if he gleaned anything valuable from that season-opening loss in 2016.

"Like what?" he said. "If you've got something clever, I'll listen to you. But no, not really."

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Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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