No. 110: Washington State
By Paul Myerberg // May 16, 2010
We can excuse Paul Wulff’s 2-11 finish in 2008. The Cougars were reeling, slip-sliding under his predecessor, Bill Doba, and the program and its fan base were willing to stumble through rock bottom in order to return to the top of the Pac-10. It helped, after all, that one of those two wins came against rival Washington in the Apple Cup. It was even more helpful to see the Huskies — those hated Huskies — go 0-12 in the same year. Then came last fall, when Washington began to break through under a new regime and the Cougars slid down even further, struggling to stop even the most faint of opposition and lacking any semblance of offensive punch. So here’s where we stand: three wins in two years, as bad a two-year stretch in program history, and no real reason think 2010 will be any different. My goodness.
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
at Oklahoma St.
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
S.M.U. (in Dallas)
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 16
- Oct. 23
- Oct. 30
at Arizona State
- Nov. 6
- Nov. 13
at Oregon State
- Dec. 4
Last year’s prediction
As for this coming season, I would not quantify any level of progress by wins and losses, but instead by how competitive the Cougars are in conference play. If Washington State can keep teams close – whether it wins or loses – instead of losing by 30, 40, 50 points, that is a good step forward. Eventually, Washington State will again compete with the top half of the Pac-10; just not this year. I think 2009 is another rebuilding season: 2-10, last in the conference.
In a nutshell A few of the low lights, just for simplicity’s sake. No more than 17 points in any conference game. A touchdown or fewer in five games. A 30-0 whitewashing at the hands of Washington, whose rapid turnaround from a disastrous 2008 leaves the program years ahead of its in-state rival. At least 40 points allowed in five consecutive games from Oct. 24 through Nov. 21. Only 848 yards rushing as a team, at 2.4 yards per carry. On the other hand, 236.4 yards per game and 35 touchdowns allowed on the ground. Only six points scored in the first quarter all season — all season! The Cougars were outscored 176-6 in the first quarter of games, illustrating just how behind the eight ball this program was in each game it played all season. At 3-22 over the past two years, Washington State is rapidly in danger of becoming irrelevant. And that’s giving Wulff and this team credit for not already being an afterthought.
High point Pretty easy call here: a 30-27 overtime win over Southern Methodist. The Cougars stayed with 17 points in only one other game, a 27-14 home loss to Arizona State.
Low point Let’s go with the whole month of November. Combined final score of the four games (Arizona, U.C.L.A., Oregon State and Washington): 163-27. Washington State’s combined yardage allowed: 2,035. Combined yardage gained: 721. First downs allowed: 109. First downs gained: 39. Average yards per carry: 2.38 (238 yards, 100 carries). The most abysmal month in a therapy-inducing season.
Tidbit In 2008, Washington State set a new program record with 570 points allowed. Yes, that total came in 13 games — one more than today’s norm, two or three more than the typical schedule in years past — yet that comes out to 43.4 points per game. The good news is that the Cougars allowed 462 points in 2009; while that total is still the second-most in program history, it represents an improvement of nearly a touchdown less per game. The bad news is that W.S.U. scored only 144 points, a program-low since 1967. So, to recap: Washington State has allowed 1,032 points under Wulff — 41.3 points per game — while scoring 309 points — 12.4 per game. Few B.C.S. conference programs have had as inept a two-year stretch. Ever.
Former players in the N.F.L.
17 S Hamza Abdullah (Arizona), S Husain Abdullah (Minnesota), C Kenny Alfred (Tennessee), CB Tyron Brackenridge (Jacksonville), S Erik Coleman (Atlanta), FB Jed Collins (Cleveland), WR Charles Dillon (Green Bay), S Eric Frampton (Minnesota), TE Devin Frischknecht (Green Bay), WR Brandon Gibson (St. Louis), K Jason Hanson (Detroit), RB Jerome Harrison (Cleveland), WR Jason Hill (San Francisco), K Rian Lindell (Buffalo), CB Karl Paymah (San Francisco), DE Ropati Piotitua (New York Jets), CB Marcus Trufant (Seattle).
Arbitrary top five list
Best-looking women over 40
1. Diane Lane.
2. Halle Berry.
3. Sandra Bullock.
4. Salma Hayek.
5. Shania Twain.
Paul Wulff (Washington State ’90), 3-22 through two seasons at his alma mater. Two ugly, frustrating, confounding seasons. As stated earlier, perhaps the 2-11 2008 season can be excused. There is no explanation for last season’s regression. Year three will present Wulff with another opportunity to show the university administration that he has this program headed in the right direction — at least. Sooner or later, W.S.U. will begin to ask for tangible results — wins and losses — and not just promises that, when all is said and done, Wulff will bring the program back to respectability. Prior to taking over in Pullman, Wulff served as the coach at Eastern Washington for eight years, compiling a 53-40 record. He was the Big Sky Conference’s coach of the year three times (2001, 2004-5) and led the Eagles into the F.C.S. playoffs in three of his final four seasons. Not a bad resume. Even more important to the W.S.U. administration were Wulff’s extensive ties to the Cougar administration as an all-conference offensive lineman; despite his 15-year tenure as an assistant and coach at E.W.U., Wulff never extinguished this bond. He is the right man for the job, as difficult as it may be, because of the obvious dedication he has to the university. However, there is no way around it: Wulff’s tenure has been a disappointment. Perhaps the biggest problem? The Cougars are as bereft of talent as any B.C.S. conference team in the country. This should be Wulff’s primary mission: hit the recruiting trail hard and find overlooked prospects who can grow and develop in his system. It is a task the former E.W.U. coach should be accustomed to, as his former position forced him to find players largely ignored by the region’s big four F.B.S. programs. However, after two years of stagnation, it’s time for Wulff to show progress. Please, any sense of progress.
Players to watch
Quarterback Jeff Tuel’s debut season was noteworthy, if only for one reason: he was the first true freshman quarterback to start for the Cougars since Drew Bledsoe. As for his play in 2009, the old saying rings true: in the land of the blind — Washington State’s quarterback situation — the man with one eye — Tuel — was king. That’s pretty harsh, come to think of it, as the sophomore-to-be was actually pretty good, considering how inefficient the offense was as a whole. Tuel finished his freshman campaign with 789 yards passing, 6 touchdowns and a 58.8 percent completion percentage, far better numbers than the two other quarterback W.S.U. played under center. His finest performance came against California, when he thew for 354 yards and 2 touchdowns against Cal; that yardage was second to only Bledsoe for a freshman (redshirt or otherwise) in school history. As with the offense as a whole, expect more growing pains from Tuel in 2010. Yet he could be the key figure in a future program turnaround. Tuel looks like a four-year starter.
The sophomore has the luxury of having all three of his favorite targets return in 2010. The receiver corps is led by junior Jared Karstetter, who earned honorable mention all-conference accolades a year ago after posting 38 receptions for 540 yards and 6 scores; he accounted for more than half of Washington State’s passing touchdowns. Joining him in the starting lineup is Gino Simone, who is penciled in at flanker after finishing second to Karstetter in receptions (36) and receiving yards (330). Additional depth comes from Daniel Blackledge, who made 23 grabs for 212 yards in 2009, and Jeffrey Solomon.
The Cougars must replace running back Dwight Tardy, who paced the team in rushing in each of his four seasons. Expect intense competition in the battle to step into his starting role. The favorite has to be James Montgomery, who rushed for 167 yards in the first three games of 2009 before an injury cost him the final nine games of the season. His health remains in doubt, however, clouding even further an already questionable position. If Montgomery does not return — or if that injury lingers, affecting his play — look for the role to fall to Marcus Richmond, though Richmond did not tally a single carry in 2009. Logwone Mitz and sophomore Carl Watson are also very much in the mix; the duo combined for 302 yards rushing a year ago.
The offensive line will be the deepest group on the roster, despite losing all-conference center Kenny Alfred. The Cougars can tout three players capable of starting at left tackle, with 2009 part-time starters Alex Reitnouer and Tyson Pencer — the pair combined to make six starts on the left side last fall — being joined by the talented JUCO transfer Wade Jacobson.W.S.U. looks solid at guard: Zack Williams, on the left, and B.J. Guerra, on the right, will give the team a strong presence in the run game. Each missed games a season ago due to injury, but were fully recovered in time for spring practice. The most experience returning lineman is right tackle Micah Hannam, who enters his senior season with 37 career starts, all on the right side. Fellow senior Andre Roxas, the only player other than Alfred to start a game at center since 2007, will step into the starting lineup at center.
The Cougars have a future star on the defensive line: sophomore end Travis Long, the only Cougars lineman to start all 12 games in 2009. He did so as a true freshman, an impressive feat in the Pac-10, and more than held his own. On the year, Long made 47 tackles (6.5 for loss) and a pair of sacks, illustrating to high school recruits across the nation that yes, come to Washington State if you want to play immediately. He absolutely did not look like a true freshman in 2009, leaving me very excited about the potential he has with the Cougars. Long will be joined at end by Kevin Kooyman, who was slated to start at the position in 2009 before suffering a season-ending injury one week into the year. Last year’s starter, former F.C.S. transfer Casey Hamlett, becomes the top reserve.
While the interior of the line was over-matched in Pac-10 play last fall, the Cougars do return all five of last season’s contributors from the middle of the defensive front. Sophomores Dan Spitz and Anthony Laurenzi combined to make seven starts at tackle in 2009, while Spitz showed the ability to also take snaps at end. That pair will try to unseat Bernard Wolfgramm and Toby Turpin — 14 combined starts a year ago — from atop the depth chart; either way, the Cougars will have at least four experienced linemen to alternate in and out of the lineup. Josh Luapo, if healthy, adds another body.
The secondary will welcome back a handful of potential starters who missed at least part of 2009. One such player, Tyree Toomer, is back at full strength after a pectoral injury forced him to take a redshirt year a season ago. Daniel Simmons, who suffered a broken leg midway through the year, is expected to hold down one cornerback spot across from Aire Justin. If Simmons and Justin can remain healthy, W.S.U. can move Chima Nwachukwu (57 tackles, 1 interception) to strong safety on a full-time basis. Nwachukwu’s versatility — his ability to play both cornerback and safety — makes him the most valuable member of the defensive backfield. Toomer is capable of stepping in at strong safety if Nwachukwu makes a position change. LeAndre Daniels is back at full strength — like Simmons, a broken leg cost him most of 2009 — and is expected to start at free safety.
Position battles to watch
Linebacker There is one known commodity at linebacker: Alex Hoffman-Ellis, last year’s starting middle linebacker, who impressed in his first year of extended duty in 2009. Hoffman-Ellis led the team in tackles last fall with 84, and added an interception and a sack. With W.S.U. losing starting outside linebackers Andy Mattingly and Jason Stripling, Wulff will give a long look to a number of unproven reserves in an effort to find two new starters. Hoffman-Ellis will move from the middle to the weak side in 2010, leaving his vacated middle linebacker spot open to competition. His likely replacement, however, is Louis Bland, who made 42 stops last fall, but Bland missed spring practice due to injury. He was supplanted in the middle during the spring by Mike Ledgerwood, a two-game starter last fall, and the pair will resume their competition when practice resumes in the fall. Junior Myron Beck hopes to land the starting job on the strong side after alternating between safety and linebacker in his first two seasons with the program. Andre Barrington and Sekope Kaufusi, each of whom redshirted in 2009, are also in the mix at strong side linebacker.
Game(s) to watch
Washington. No game means more. Even when the Cougars finished 2-11 in 2008, a season-ending win over the Huskies allowed the team to enter the off-season with a nice taste in its mouth. In terms of winnable games… hold on… (flips through media guide, consults Times Square psychic)… oh, how about Montana State? I suppose that’s a guaranteed win, right?
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell There really is no reason to think the Cougars will be significantly better in 2010 than they were in 2008 or 2009, unless one was willing to believe that the previous year’s struggles will yield a far better on-field product in year three under Paul Wulff. Is anyone willing to go out on a limb and make such a statement? (You’d think I would, as my new platform reaches, oh, approximately 1,000 times fewer readers than in the past.) You’d be crazy to think this team, even a year older, even with a few young players worth watching, capable of making more than a two-win improvement over last fall’s 1-11 record. For starters, the schedule is unkind. Washington State’s three non-conference games come against Oklahoma State, Montana State and S.M.U.; loss, win, toss-up. I’d give the Mustangs the edge over the Cougars, to be honest. Then we get to Pac-10 play: all nine opponents are more talented — by leaps and bounds — though I suppose W.S.U. could score an upset over U.C.L.A., given that the Bruins have been sloppy offensively over the past handful of seasons. What about a silver lining? Tuel might grow into a nice college quarterback. The offensive line returns a good amount of experience. Likewise, the defensive line returns eight players who started at least one game in 2009. Maybe the Cougars will shock the conference and win four games. And that’s what a four-win season would be: a shock.
Dream season The Cougars are more than just competitive: they’re good. W.S.U. goes 8-4, 6-3 in the Pac-10, and return to bowl play. This would be nothing short of the biggest miracle in the history of college football.
Nightmare season We can all do the math: 2-11 in 2008, 1-11 in 2009, 0-12 in 2010.
In case you were wondering
Where do Washington State fans congregate? A few more options than the rest of the Countdown’s bottom ten. For Washington State coverage, you can consult CougFan.com and CougZone.com for message board chatter and recruiting news; the Web site of The Seattle Times for newspaper coverage; and for a blog’s take, the aptly-named WSU Football Blog. The latter is one of the best fan-run blogs in the Pac-10.
Who is No. 109? The only program in the F.B.S. whose head coach nearly entered the Secret Service before beginning his coaching career.
Tags: Paul Wulff, Washington State
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