SEATTLE — The Washington State Cougars had rallied to pull within four points of second-ranked Oregon, and WSU players were jubilant as they poured into the locker room at halftime after being serenaded with a thunderous standing ovation from most of the 60,000-plus fans.
Uh-oh, Connor Halliday thought to himself.
“I think too many (players) were a little surprised,” WSU’s sophomore quarterback told reporters near the locker room at CenturyLink Field after the game late Saturday night. “We came in here, everyone was pretty riled up.
“I think we’ve got to be able to stay within ourselves. Obviously, that showed by the way we came out and started the second half.”
The Ducks, one of the fastest and most explosive teams in the nation, scored the first 28 points after halftime. The Cougars held Oregon to a season-low 469 yards, but lost 51-26.
“It felt like the mindset changed with some players (at halftime),” WSU wide receiver Marquess Wilson said. “Actually, as a whole team.”
The Cougars (2-3, 0-2 Pac-12 Conference), who claim to be in the best shape of their lives, have been outscored 75-27 in second halves. WSU holds a 98-88 advantage in before intermission, but the Cougars have been outplayed after halftime in every game.
“We’ve got some guys that hang their heads when we need to keep battling,” Halliday said.
There were some positives.
Mike Leach has openly questioned the mental toughness of some of the Cougars, but the coach praised his young team for playing “pretty courageously” through much of Saturday’s game.
“It was our most complete game,” Leach said.
Junior safety Deone Bucannon said the Cougars gained confidence by rallying from an early 20-3 deficit (“We started out frantic,” Leach said) to pull within 23-19 at the half.
“We know now we can play with anybody in the country,” said Bucannon, who recorded a career-high two interceptions.
And there were some lows.
Halliday absorbed all seven sacks and limped to the sidelines in the final minutes. Jeff Tuel, wearing a light brace on the right knee he injured in the second game, went 4 of 4 for 62 yards and a TD in relief.
Leach may not publicly name a starting quarterback prior to Saturday’s game at 14th-ranked Oregon State (3-0, 2-0).