No. 85: Washington State
By Paul Myerberg // Jun 7, 2011
Pasadena is just a distant memory, a tall tale long-suffering fans tell the younger crowd to convince them that Washington State has won before and may, with some more hard work, win again. It was eight years ago: Jan. 1, 2003, Mike Price’s final team, a 10-3 squad that stood as the final precursor to the U.S.C. decade of dominance that followed. It’s been nearly that long since Washington State has been a factor — U.S.C. has been gone, come back and disappeared again. The last seven years have found the Cougars go through a pair of coaches, post a single winning season and bowl trip and post three double-digit loss seasons that double as the three worst seasons in program history. So it’s been a long, deep slide with one meek silver lining: Washington State can only go up, and it can’t get any worse.
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
at San Diego St.
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
Oregon St. (in Seattle)
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
at Washington (in Seattle)
Last year’s prediction
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. 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.
In a nutshell The best of a bad lot: of the three Paul Wulff-coached teams, this was the best. The most competitive, without question. These Cougars were a tough, scrappy bunch, hanging close with much of its daunting schedule, minus a few slip-ups. When you lose 10 games you look for any positives you can find, and that the Cougars weren’t all too far off from 4-8, or perhaps 5-7, is the best news you’re going to find. If we stand back, we see a program at rock-bottom; if we look closer, we might see a team ready to break through. That’s what I saw last season, at least. This was especially the case down the stretch: W.S.U. went 1-2 in its last three, beating a good Oregon State team on the road and losing to California and Washington by a touchdown. The team was also improved statistically, as you’d expect. The 19.6 points per game might have again be worst in the Pac-10, but it was a high under Wulff; same with the 35.8 points per game allowed, which was a touchdown better than the defense in 2009. Baby steps on paper, but large steps in reality — even if the Cougars suffered another double-digit loss season.
High point The win over Oregon State. Unexpected, to put it lightly. The Cougars dominated on the road, effectively ending the Beavers’ bowl hopes — Oregon came to end the year — and providing one win in a year full of close calls during conference play.
Low point A 42-0 loss at Arizona State. It sandwiched a month-long stretch of strong play, and stood as one of thee outliers in a year of pretty competitive showings. The year certainly didn’t start well, with a 65-17 loss to Oklahoma State officially sending home the message that no, this won’t be the year Washington State turns it around.
Tidbit Last fall’s scoring differential — minus-195 points — would stand as the second-worst total in program history if we discounted Wulff’s first two seasons. In other words, though Washington State was improved, last year’s team was still one of the program’s five worst in history. But the offense scored more points and the defense allowed fewer points than in the year before, a program-first since 2000-1: in 2000, the Cougars scored 281 points and allowed 354 en route to a 3-9 finish; in 2001, the 10-win Cougars scored 420 points and allowed 269.
Former players in the N.F.L.
15 S Hamza Abdullah (Arizona), Husain Abdullah (Minnesota0, CB Tyron Brackenridge (Jacksonville), S Erik Coleman (Detroit), FB Jed Collins (New Orleans), S Eric Frampton (Minnesota), WR Brandon Gibson (St. Louis), K Jason Hanson (Detroit), RB Jerome Harrison (Philadelphia), WR Jason Hill (Jacksonville), K Rian Lindell (Buffalo), CB Karl Paymah (Houston), DE Ropati Pitoitua (New York Jets), CB Marcus Trufant (Seattle), OG Zack Williams (Carolina).
Arbitrary top five list
John Candy films from 1980-86
1. “Stripes,” 1981.
2. “Volunteers,” 1985.
3. “Armed and Dangerous,” 1986.
4. “Summer Rental,” 1985.
5. “Splash,” 1984.
Paul Wulff (Washington State ’90), 5-32 through three seasons at his alma mater. Three ugly, frustrating, confounding seasons. Year four will present Wulff with another opportunity to show the university administration that he has this program headed in the right direction. This fall also marks the first year, in my mind, where 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 terrible resume, all things considered. Even more important to the W.S.U. administration were Wulff’s extensive ties to the university 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 not found Washington State playing good football. Perhaps the biggest problem? The Cougars have been as bereft of talent as any B.C.S. conference team in the country, though this situation has been ameliorated over the last two or three recruiting classes. This has been 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. This is the year for Wulff; there are no more excuses, no more time afforded for another 10-loss season. Either he gets this team moving or he gets packing.
Players to watch
If Jeff Tuel played at U.S.C., he’d be on the cover of magazines. He doesn’t, so he’s not, but Tuel is unquestionably good enough to get far more national love than he’s actually received — that’s life when your team is 5-32 over three years. Let’s use this time to give Tuel, a junior, the love he deserves: the first freshman to start in Pullman since Drew Bledsoe, the clear bright spot on an offense that’s still finding its way, Tuel’s numbers compare very favorably with U.S.C.’s Matt Barkley, making him, like Barkley, a young quarterback to watch on the West Coast. One advantage that Barkley holds over Tuel is experience, but Tuel is rapidly closing the gap in that regard, and he’ll show that growing experience in 2011. His numbers in 2011 were very good (2,781 yards passing with 18 scores), considering that Tuel stepped up his play despite the one-dimensionality of Washington State’s offense.
What does the future hold? He’ll earn all-conference honors; threaten Alex Brink’s school record for passing yards; and be known as the quarterback who made things happen despite significant odds. What does the present hold? I see a 3,000-yard season, complete with at least 20 scores and a better completion percentage. Tuel’s just beginning to scratch the surface.
His favorite target will continue to be Marquess Wilson, who didn’t just exceed any of the expectations surrounding his arrival in 2010: he outplayed each and every one of the five-star receiver prospects who arrived out West with significantly larger profiles. He did so by developing an immediate rapport with his quarterback, though the lack of competition to be Tuel’s leading man did certainly help his candidacy. When the dust settled, Wilson made 55 catches for 1,006 yards and 6 scores, doing so despite being an unpolished product. So his future looks bright. While Wilson makes the highlight reel, senior Jared Karstetter (62 catches for 658 yards, team-best 7 touchdowns) does the dirty work. Rounding out the starting lineup is senior Isiah Barton, who had his first taste of significant playing time in 2010 but must do more — he’ll have the opportunity to do so with Wilson drawing consistent attention.
The running game has to be better: see the above comment about being one-dimensional. Much will hinge on the progression of the offensive line, but there’s also pressure on these running backs: leading rusher James Montgomery is gone, and the position is open to competition. Senior Logwone Mintz (263 yards, 4 scores) is the likely starter come September, but that doesn’t mean a Carl Winston or Rickey Galvin can’t earn more and more touches with solid play. Galvin, a redshirt freshman, was projected to be a factor last fall but couldn’t make it past his first collegiate carry; a solid hit from an Oklahoma State tackler ended his year in the season opener.
You can trace back all of Washington State’s struggles on defense to the paltry performance of the front four, which has been bullied by teams good and bad since Wulff’s arrival. Any difference we see in the win column will be as a result of this line improving — and while we shouldn’t hold our breath, hoping for a massive improvement, Washington State can take some solace in the fact that this line is deeper than it was a year ago. But proven? I don’t think. Explosive? Far from it.
At least there’s Travis Long, who’s a shoe-in for all-conference honors. He’s there already after posting two very nice years since arriving on campus (51 tackles, 5 sacks last fall); Long simply needs some help. This help arrives in the bodies of several JUCO transfers, though each arrives with the caveat that we don’t really know what we’re going to get.
That’s the case with Ian Knight, though he has impressed since stepping on campus in the spring. More options exist: Jordan Pu’u Robinson, a sophomore, sits behind Knight on the right side; junior Skylar Stormo and Adam Coerper are behind Long. Justin Clayton is a guy who could play some end, but his size – Clayton’s about 275 pounds – is actually a detriment in this case. Washington State wants ends with pass rushing ability, while Clayton’s size makes him a better fit inside.
Clayton won’t start inside, more than likely, but he will be the first tackle off the bench. Redshirt freshman Toni Pole has claimed one starting spot thanks to a great spring; it was thought that Pole was a future starter when he signed last February, but he’s ahead of schedule. Junior Anthony Laurenzi is a sure starter and, perhaps, an all-conference performer. I’ve got my eyes on senior Brandon Rankin, a former JUCO transfer who came to Pullman with a reputation as a great edge rusher but has grown into a role along the interior of the line. Depth on the inside is pretty good, especially if Pole is as good as advertised.
If the defensive line can keep them clean, occupying blockers, the Washington State linebacker corps can make some plays. The leader of this group is senior weak side linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis (81 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions), whose blend of production and experience makes him invaluable. But he isn’t the clear star of this group, in my mind: that’s one of sophomores C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi. For Mizell, it’s all about putting his extreme physical skills together with an improved mental game; he might not start the season opener – Mike Legerwood currently starts in the middle – but Mizell is going to be a fixture in the middle for the next three years.
The cornerbacks are still undergoing some growing pains, as it’s sophomores and freshmen litter the depth chart. These aren’t just sophomores, however: in the cases of Nolan Washington and Damante Horton, these are sophomores with some pretty solid game experience, putting them ahead of the learning curve. This will be your starting duo come September, and each should be better – one year wiser, one year more likely to predict what’s going to happen on the fly. Maybe each is a year away from really being comfortable, but Washington State knows that both will get better with each snap.
There’s depth behind that pair with Daniel Simmons, a former starter who should be completely recovered from a broken leg that still seemed to hamper the junior a year ago. No position is more set in stone than safety, where sophomores Deone Buchannon and Tyree Toomer are locked in and ready to go. Buchannon (team-leading 84 tackles, 2 interceptions), a lanky strong safety, is a rising star. He just needs to get a little bigger. Toomer just needs to be a little more consistent; he also needs to make more plays.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line The line needs to catch up with the rest of the offense, which has the pieces in place to make another substantial improvement in 2011. As we’ve seen elsewhere, it’s often the line that comes last; Duke, for instance, is only now bringing together an offensive front commensurate with its depth and talent at quarterback, receiver and running back. The Cougars are not quite there up front, but this line will be better and deeper — so it’s a start. The key will be finding a set-in-stone starting five, something first-year line coach Steve Morton was unable to do last fall thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness. It won’t be that hard to do: just find the seniors. I see four in the starting lineup, beginning with bookend tackles David Gonzalez and Wade Jacobson. Gonzalez, a former JUCO transfer, earned the starting job coming out of fall camp last fall but was injured midway through the year; he needs to remain healthy, obviously. It’s a bit surprising to find Jacobson at right tackle, not guard, but his move outside opens up the right guard spot to another senior, B.J. Guerra. It will be either Andrew Roxas or Tyler Meighen at center, where the Cougars lost Zack Williams: Roxas has been injury-plagued, and Meighen, a JUCO addition, was on campus in time for spring practice. That leaves only left guard, where sophomore John Fullington is a logical fit. Fullington was one of several linemen thrown into major roles last fall, and like most, he’ll be better for it in 2011. Finding a quality second line is the real key, especially with four projected starters due to depart after the season. Also of real importance: this group gave up 51 sacks and led an offense that averaged roughly 90 yards per game last fall, and those totals must drop and rise immensely, respectively. All in all, the line is better, but is not quite good enough.
Game(s) to watch
The Cougars will match last season’s win total before the calendar officially turns to fall. A 3-0 mark outside of Pac-12 is also very much in play, which would set up a bowl run down the stretch. The conference schedule is as intimidating as always, but winnable games do exist. Unfortunately, one “home” game, Oregon State, will be played in Seattle. Then there’s Washington. Perhaps you’ve heard of a tidy little annual tussle known as the Apple Cup?
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell The standards aren’t quite the same: one year had lofty expectations, one had more toned-down expectations. But this is the biggest season in Pullman since 2003, the last time the Cougars had realistic Rose Bowl hopes. So much is riding on how much progression Washington State finds in 2011: not just Wulff’s job, but also the future of the program – I shudder at the idea of bringing a new coach and starting from scratch, by and large, under a new regime. What it will take for Wulff to return in 2012 is up for debate, as some say merely more improvement, others say at least five wins, other say nothing less than a bowl berth. I’m leaning towards some combination of the first two: definite improvement on the field with at least two added wins. I think we’ll see at least four wins. I actually think five, though two will come over the weaklings that open the season. Washington State is not yet a bowl team, in my opinion, but this is without question – and it’s not even close to being close – the best team under Wulff, if not the program’s best team since 2006, the last time the Cougars won six games. There’s a great quarterback, one deserving of more attention. There’s a terrific sophomore receiver. The only issue on offense is the line, which is merely average; the backfield is a question mark, but will produce if given help up front. The defense is not yet up to par, but it’s getting there: the back seven is fine, but the line remains a mess. Also, don’t underestimate how important punter Reid Forrest was to this team; he gave the Cougars a nice boost in terms of field position. The schedule is easier but far from easy, giving W.S.U. only five true home games – that’s less than most B.C.S. conference teams – and sending the Cougars to Oregon, California and Washington down the stretch. All told, things are coming together in Pullman; Wulff’s plan took time to put into place, but the pieces are almost there. This is Washington State’s best team in years.
Dream season The breakthrough comes a year or so ahead of schedule, with Wulff far exceeding his own career win total in Pullman during an 8-4 regular season.
Nightmare season The offense is worse, the defense is worse, the Cougars are worse: 1-11, 0-9 in the new-look Pac-12.
In case you were wondering
Where do Washington State fans congregate? 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-12.
Through 36 teams 97,960.
Who is No. 84? The School of Business at tomorrow’s university was created with the assistance of an extremely generous gift from the father of a politician currently in the mix for the 2012 Presidential nomination.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: C.J. Mizell, Deon Buchannon, Ian Knight, Jeff Tuel, Marquess Wilson, Pac-12, Paul Wulff, Travis Long, Washington State
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