PROVO, Utah -- Mike Leach's Washington State debut was a certifiable dud, at least to anyone whose first exposure to the 2012 Cougars was Thursday night's nationally televised 30-6 loss to BYU.
"If you really wanted to see us play well," Leach said afterward, "you should have been there for Monday's practice."
In less than one half of a football game, Leach's alma mater, BYU, managed to douse eight months of anticipation -- both in Pullman and throughout college football -- for the eccentric coach's return to the sideline following his two-season, Craig James-induced exile. With season openers, it's always difficult to gauge whether the victor was that good or the loser that bad, but at least for this night BYU looked very much like a returning 10-win team stacked with veterans, Wazzu like a returning 4-8 team trying to find its way under a new system.
"We just had way too much performance anxiety," said the former Texas Tech coach.
The outcome shouldn't be entirely surprising. BYU, perhaps unduly overlooked by preseason voters (the Cougars garnered just 10 points in the same Coaches' Poll that ranked them 25th to end last season), trotted out a senior quarterback, Riley Nelson, who went 6-1 upon taking over the starting job last season, along with seven returning starters from a top 15 defense. Wazzu, nine years removed from its last bowl trip, started a senior quarterback, Jeff Tuel, who's experienced seven wins in his career (most while injured on the sideline), and a defense that returned three of the front seven from last year's 82nd-ranked unit.
There's a reason Vegas pegged BYU a near-two touchdown favorite.
Still, the mystique surrounding Leach was such that viewers tuning in for Wazzu's first ESPN-televised game in six years expected to be entertained. They figured to see a shootout. Instead, they watched BYU's potentially special defense become the first in six years to hold a Leach-coached team without a touchdown. The only mild surprises were that Leach stuck with Tuel throughout a miserable 229-yard, two-interception, three-sack night, and that WSU's All-America receiver, Marquess Wilson, was mostly quiet until garbage time. (Wilson did have two big plays, a highlight-reel leaping touchdown catch and a long bomb downfield, but holding penalties negated both of them.)
Instead, the night's ultra-efficient quarterback was BYU's Nelson, who finished 25-of-36 for 285 yards, two scores and no picks while running a freshly diversified offense highlighted by no-huddle series, option plays and a mix of vertical passing and power running. Previously little used junior tight end Kanekua Friel put up the big receiving numbers (six catches, 101 yards, two touchdowns) and third-string quarterback Taysom Hill, whom BYU sprinkled in on short-yardage situations, proved the breakout freshman, throwing an 18-yard touchdown to Friel on his first career pass attempt.
"I was impressed with our team in general," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. "... Anytime you have experienced players, you hope to put them in criticial situations where they make plays. It was fun to watch them play tonight. Hungry is a great way to describe them."
Wazzu, on the other hand, never remotely found the precision rhythm associated with Leach' prolific Texas Tech offenses. It was the same familiar dink-and-dunk spread, but the timing wasn't there. The receivers were unable to break free; offensive linemen jumped at the wrong times; frustrated players drew personal foul calls.
"We vacillated between playing frantic and playing overly conscientious trying not to make a mistake," said Leach. "At some point we have to find that happy medium."
There were a couple of vintage Leach moments, starting right with the opening drive. Facing a fourth-and-five at the BYU 44, the coach didn't hesitate to go for it nor change his mind following a BYU timeout. Tuel completed a seven-yard out to touted freshman Gabe Marks and the Cougars' drive continued for a 10th play.
That was pretty much the end of the Leach effect for the night. Three plays later, Tuel threw an interception, BYU marched 10 plays in the other direction to go up 7-0 and the game never got any closer than that. Then late in the third quarter, with Wazzu in full-out desperation mode, Leach called for a fake punt from his own 31-yard-line. That play ended in much the same level of disaster seen frequently during the Bill Doba and Paul Wulff eras; BYU's David Foote blocked the kick.
While Leach's Wazzu debut was a bust, he may have inadvertently given his alma mater a boost. Largely unopposed on the TV dial (save for Mitt Romney's GOP nomination speech), BYU got the chance to make an early impression on national viewers. Those who stayed up on the East Coast saw a classic overachiever quarterback at his best in Nelson and a nasty defense, led by impressive junior linebacker Kyle Van Noy (two sacks), hold Wazzu without a touchdown.
BYU will get several more showcase opportunities, with games against Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and (most likely) Georgia Tech slated for ESPN or NBC. Now in its second year as an independent, BYU's season will be defined by those big games. Either the Cougars will knock off the big boys and make a run at the BCS, or they'll win around nine or 10 games and take their designated spot in the Poinsettia Bowl.
"It's an insultt to say that we're going to be scared of teams," said BYU linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "We had one of the top 15 defenses in the country last year. I don't think we have to be scared of anyone."
As for Leach's victory-starved players, "Right now we're just too fragile," Leach said. "It's too easy for us to get disappointed."
At this point Wazzu fans are conditioned to be disappointed. Leach is still likely the guy who will lift them out of the doldrums, but it was apparently asking too much to extend eight months of uninterrupted optimism for another three hours.