Washington State Can Make Statement with Win at UCLA


Year four is typically when a head coach’s progress on a rebuilding project can begin to be assessed. He’s had time to recruit his style of player, change schematics, and reshape perception of the program both internally and externally.

Paul Wulff’s first three seasons at Washington State didn’t exactly go swimmingly. Cougar football was in dire straits when Bill Doba left after the 2007 season, and Wulff’s initial teams on the Palouse reaped the end result of what the Doba era sowed. A jaw-dropping 25 Cougars were arrested over a year-and-a-half, and the program’s inability to meet NCAA graduation and grade standards reduced the amount of scholarships at Wulff’s disposal. That, coupled with a sharp decline of the on-field product from just five years prior when WSU was in the Rose Bowl made for a lousy stretch.

But Saturday in that very same Rose Bowl, the Cougars can take perhaps their biggest step yet toward returning to Pac-12 relevance.

Having already matched the program’s win total of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with last week’s win at Colorado, a defeat of UCLA would give Wulff as many wins this season as all three of his prior seasons combined. It would also have the Cougars just two wins from bowl eligibility with more than half their schedule remaining. An astoundingly quick progression to be certain, crafted through a complete overhaul in program attitude.

Building a winning football program can be viewed akin to growing crops. Sometimes, all that’s needed is to plant the seeds and fertilize — Wulff had to pull the myriad weeds vis a vis the losing attitude and off-field issues. Such a process takes time, and it requires taking some significant lumps along the way. Surviving that period can be tricky, as fan bases want to win right away. WSU athletics’ patience with Wulff’s process is paying off.

The Cougar offense has scored points in bunches, and been exciting to watch courtesy of a high flying aerial attack. The Cougars’ 44.5 points per game rank in the top 10 of Bowl Subdivision teams, and WSU is averaging nearly 380 yards passing per game. Wazzu is handling the teams it should like UNLV and Idaho State, something that hasn’t been the case for the program in recent years. It’s also giving itself opportunities to win the more challenging contests.

Last week’s 31-27 defeat of Colorado was the kind of game WSU lost in recent seasons, particularly last year. The Cougars battled with the Buffaloes in a seesaw affair, and trailed on the final possession. But Marquess Wilson, one of the nation’s best receivers, broke free for the game-winning touchdown of over 60 yards. CU may be down, but any conference road win is significant, particularly one for a program reestablishing itself.

WSU was in a similar position the game prior at San Diego State, actually leading a very good Aztec team that recently underwent its own massive overhaul, but faltered down the stretch. Having that ability to bounce back under the same conditions at CU shows growth.

Another such instance that went sour for the Cougars was last season at UCLA. Because of the league’s expansion, the Cougars must travel to Pasadena a second straight season. That could prove beneficial for this more veteran Wazzu lineup, dotted with players who were there for the Bruins’ two unanswered and decisive touchdowns in the final quarter.

In that loss and against what was statistical a better Bruin defense, the Cougars managed 28 points. UCLA comes into Saturday night’s tilt No. 73 against the pass nationally. Not that he wouldn’t have otherwise, but expect Marshall Lobbestael to attack the Bruin secondary early and often.

Lobbestael will be key to this game, and that fact alone is indicative of just how far this program’s come. Lobbestael was not the Cougars’ starter to open this campaign; Jeff Tuel, a quarterback who showed promise last season despite WSU’s struggles, was atop the depth chart heading into the ISU game but broke his collar bone.

Such an injury would seem devastating for a team that’s success hinged so largely on a passing offense. That Lobbestael has performed so brilliantly in Tuel’s stead speaks volumes of the recruiting Wulff has done, without sacrificing the commitment to academic and moral improvement. Tuel may return in late October, but WSU will have a tough decision to make, particularly if Lobbestael leads a second road, conference victory in as many weeks. That tough decision is one I’m sure Wulff and his staff relish.

It’s not all warm-and-fuzzy on the Palouse, though. The Cougars rank a decent 43rd against the rush, but largely due to playing an almost pass-exclusive ISU offense and the offensively anemic UNLV in the first two weeks. On their last trip to Southern California, the Cougs were veritable tackling dummies for All-America caliber running back Ronnie Hillman.

The UCLA offense is largely run-based, and backs Derrick Coleman and Jonathan Franklin each average around six yards per carry. The Bruins can pound the ball and extend possessions, thereby keeping Lobbestael and Wilson off the field. Negating that tactic, and striking early are critical for the Cougars — UCLA has struggled mightily in the opening quarter of its three losses, but limited San Jose State and Oregon State early in its wins.