That should have been the last meaningful play of the game on Saturday. Connor Halliday and Cougars got the big third-down conversion they needed. The clock stopped temporarily on the first down with 2:31 to play and the Rams were out of timeouts.
The clock began ticking again with 26 seconds on the play clock, meaning WSU could run the clock down to 2:06 before snapping the ball. A knee on first down and the clock can run down to at least 1:25, depending how long the play takes and how quickly the play clock resets. It's probably closer to 1:22, especially if Halliday stalls for a second or two. Another knee on second down and there are 40 or seconds left before the the third down play has to be snapped. The third down knee either kills the entire clock or leaves no more than two or three seconds to play. Any remaining time is killed easily by snapping the ball and having the punter/anyone run out of the back of the end zone for a safety. Roll Halliday out of the pocket and have him launch a pass deep and out of bounds, whatever you want. Do it and it's game over, Cougs win.
Update: To add a little bit to the scenario above. WSU could have run out the clock by simply taking knees. If WSU takes a delay of game penalty on first down, the clock stops at 2:05. Assuming the process of taking a knee takes two seconds. The Cougars could run off 42 seconds per kneel with a delay of game. That runs off 2:06 of clock. Fourth down doesn't even happen, the clock hits 0:00. Leach and the Cougars have been in this situation before. Against Cal, WSU took over with 2:15 to play. They ran on first down, then took knees on second and third down. The Cougars called time out with 10 seconds to play, then punted to run off the remaining time. That drive took 2:05 off the clock (without taking a delay of game) which is exactly what WSU needed.
Instead, we all know what happened.
The issue moving forward isn't what happened, but what will happen next time. This isn't the first time WSU has had serious clock management issues in the Mike Leach era. They cropped up last year -- with some questionable decisions likely costing WSU the game against Colorado -- and have been prevalent again this season. WSU didn't manage the clock well at the end of the first half against CSU or the first half against Washington. So, that's three of the last four halves where the Cougars have shot themselves in the foot.
And the thing is, it isn't going to stop happening, at least as long as Mike Leach is the head coach. Leach has dismissed questions about clock management or the use of timeouts in the past and did so again on Saturday. Should WSU have been more cautions about the running play clock?
"We shouldn't have messed with any of that," Leach said after the game. "Fine, use the clock. We should have attacked them and got first downs, and then we should have protected the football."
What about not having Halliday keep on the read action?
"I just think we could have selected things better. Thing is, we should have thrown it, attacked them and got first downs."
I will readily admit Mike Leach knows more about football than I do. He's probably forgotten more about football than I will ever know. He makes $2.25 million to coach a college football team, I most certainly do not. But, there is no way in hell the mistake was to not throw enough.
There is a certain hubris that comes with running the Air Raid. An "our best will beat your best" attitude. That's great, but there is a time and a place. WSU already threw for the first down it needed, it was time to play the odds and do the thing that gave WSU the best chance of winning. Should the Cougars have been able to run the ball and not fumble? Yes, but there was still added risk when they should have taken knees.
That, however, is not Leach's style. He coaches -- and calls plays -- with the idea that an opposing defense can't stop the offense. If WSU gets stopped it's because the offense didn't execute correctly. It doesn't matter what the score is or how much time is left, if the offense executes the clock is irrelevant. That's true. The problem is when WSU fails to execute --like it did at the end of both halves -- it gives opponents an opportunity they should have never had.
Leach has done a lot of good since coming to WSU. He's elevated the football program and will likely continue to do so. That doesn't mean he's without flaws. Time management is a major one and it proved to be a fatal one on Saturday.