It wasn't quite Night of the Living Zombies, but the Cougars showed some signs of life in the second half Saturday in 31-17 loss to Cal.
Mike Leach made headlines during the week when he compared the seniors on his now 2-5 team to the popular brain eating monsters from horror movies in what looked like it might have been a ploy to light a fire under his team. But if that was truly his intent, it didn't appear to initially work, as the Cougars sleepwalked through the first half against Cal and then buried themselves in a 21-3 hole early in the third quarter.
However, Leach's harsh words may have motivated his former senior starting quarterback, Jeff Tuel, as he came back from the dead when he was put in the game for Connor Halliday who threw two interceptions early on. Tuel wasn't spot on as he only had a 56 percent completion percentage while throwing a staggering 53 times, but he limited his mistakes and connected on some of the big plays that the Cougars offense has lacked so far this season. Tuel finished with the kind of numbers that fans saw him putting up coming into the season as he passed for 320 yards and two touchdowns without any interceptions. He may not be the best option for the long run, but it appears that Tuel might be Leach's best option for the remaining five games on the Cougars schedule if Leach hopes to grab a win or two.
Tuel did almost everything he needed to do in the Cougar offense as he spread the ball around to eight different receivers, connected on the deep ball and didn't make mistakes as he got the Cougars back into the game with two short touchdown passes to Brett Bartolome. Under Tuel's direction, the Cougars offense showed the most signs of life it has since the UNLV game, and without the help of Marquess Wilson for most of the game who was knocked out with a potential concussion.
On defense, the Cougars were able to make Zach Maynard look like the Zach Maynard that Cal's opponents have been happy to know during his time as the Bears starting quarterback, limiting his completions and picking him off twice. Other than a mid-range pass that Keenan Allen turned into a 69-yard touchdown, the Cougars held Maynard to just 120 yards.
It would be on the ground where the Cougars would lose the game though, as they gave up 318 yards while only running for 36 themselves. It's no secret that Leach's offense doesn't require running the ball much, but the Cougars complete inability to do anything on the ground is a big part of why their offense has been stalling in the red zone. Even with the skilled arsenal of receivers that Leach has, his team is going to have a hard time scoring with a short field inside the 25 if they can't keep teams honest with a little bit of running. On the other side of the ball, the ease of which Cal was able to move the ball on the ground should be alarming when you take into account that the Cougars were facing a quarterback who they were likely daring to pass.
They may still be a long ways away from getting back to respectability, but I think the Cougars are making some strides, and have the potential to upset a team or two down the stretch behind the strength of their passing game. The key is that I think that they will need to start Tuel to accomplish this. It may not make the most sense in the long run, but when you are 2-5 you can't really think about the long run, it's just about winning games now. An 0-9 run in the conference could be the kind of confidence shattering season that holds the team back mentally for years, but an upset (particularly one in the Apple Cup) could numb the pain, and I believe that starting Tuel gives the Cougars the best chance of securing that shot of Novacaine.