We have our follow story on the Cal game for you to read along with out look back. Hope you enjoy them both. Read on.
• Here's the story ...
PULLMAN – As any husband knows, when your wife starts talking to you about something, it's probably time to listen – and make a change.
"When I got on the bus, my wife (said to) me, 'we've got to do something about starting off faster,' " Washington State football coach Paul Wulff said Sunday. "I'm like, 'I know, everybody knows.' "
They know, yes, but they don't know how to change it.
Wulff had to admit that to his wife Sherry and everyone else after last Saturday's 49-17 loss at California. Helped by poor special teams play, defensive lapses and offensive mistakes, the Bears jumped out to 21-0 and 35-3 leads.
"Our kids talk about it, we talk about it," Wulff said of the slow starts that have plagued WSU all season. "We talk about what we've got to do different, what we can do to start faster."
Though the self-examination hasn't yielded answers, there are possible explanations.
"When you have some youth in there or you have an injury or two during the week, you're going to have some ups and downs," Wulff said. "When you're building a program, it's not always consistent."
But such explanations are starting to wear thin, even to Wulff.
As the Cougars emerged from their bye week, practice took on a more demanding tone.
Expectations expressed quietly the first half of the season earned a more strident review on the practice field and in team meetings.
After Saturday's loss, the emphasis in the post-game locker room was not just on getting better but building the belief they were better – and needed to start playing that way.
"We've got to the midpoint of the year and we've had reasons for where we're at," Wulff said of a record that's reached 1-6 overall and 0-5 in the Pac-10. "But we want to take another step as a team and as coaches. I think in some areas we really did that Saturday. In some areas we didn't."
It's those latter areas that were addressed after the game.
"We want to make sure we're slowly raising the bar," Wulff said. "And raising the bar of our own expectations. Really that's all it is."
The goal is to keep growing as a team, he emphasized.
"It's important that we do that and it's important that they all understand that's where we want to head," Wulff said. "Sometimes you've got to make it clear it's important for all of us to do that."
The Cougars next chance for growth comes Saturday in San Antonio. They'll face national power Notre Dame at the Alamo Dome in an off-campus home game for the Irish, something the school wants to do often in the future. Oddsmakers have established 4-2 Notre Dame as a 30-point favorite in the nationally televised game.
"They're a good team," Wulff said, "but I like the opportunity for our team and our program right now. This is a great stage for our young football team."
And, if that team wants to take a curtain call, it will need to hit its marks from the opening lines.
• And here's the look back ...
Cal 49, WSU 17
• High point of the game
For the second consecutive week we highlight a hookup between freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel and junior Johnny Forzani, the latter with less football experience than most freshmen. Trailing 35-3 early in the second quarter – after Jahvid Best's 61-yard scoring run through the middle of the WSU defense – the Cougars were in danger of repeating last year's 66-3 debacle. But Tuel showed again why the WSU coaching staff is so high on him, ignoring a quickly decaying pocket, stepping up and delivering the ball some 50 yards down the middle to Forzani, who had used his speed to get behind the defense. "I try to give him all the time in the world, because I know he can run," Tuel said before adding, "It looked like I could have thrown it a little bit farther too." It was good enough for a 68-yard score.
• Low point of the game
There were so many to choose from in the first 20 minutes, from the Bears' 76-yard punt return to Best's two scores. But we're going with the Cougars' second legitimate scoring chance. It came on WSU's initial second-quarter possession and was a result of freshman Carl Winston's first breakout run, a 37-yard sprint around left end. When Winston was finally run out of bounds at the Cal 35, WSU had a chance to cut into the 28-3 lead. But three plays gained just three yards, leaving kicker Nico Grasu facing a 49-yard field goal. The junior, who has struggled at times this year, hit the ball well. It looked as if the Cougars would get on the board. But the end-over-end kick came down solidly on the crossbar, bouncing back toward the end zone. Grasu stared, dropped his head and jogged back to the sideline.
• A pat on the back
The receiving corps has been in flux all season, in part due to the early defections of Jeshua Anderson and Kevin Norrell, two of its rare experienced members. But that's starting to change. Forzani is emerging as a deep threat, Gino Simone and Jared Karstetter have become reliable possession receivers – Simone, a freshman, caught his first collegiate touchdown and Karstetter matched Simone's six catches. But the emerging receiver is Jeffrey Solomon, who led WSU with seven catches. The transfer from Eastern Washington made two acrobatic snags and finished with a game-high 81 yards.
• Needs fixing
Depth is an area that has to be addressed in recruiting and, with 16 verbal commitments already, the Cougars are trying to do just that. The depth, or lack of, showed again versus Cal at the linebacker position. With Louis Bland on crutches, and probably out for the season, and Alex Hoffman-Ellis limited by his staph infection recovery, WSU relied on seldom-used Mike Ledgerwood at middle linebacker. The sophomore came through admirably – he had a career-high eight tackles – but lacks the speed of Hoffman-Ellis or the playmaking capability of Bland. And, when Andy Mattingly had to sit with a leg injury, walk-on Joshua Garrett had to fill in. The inexperience showed.
Three unanswered questions
• Will WSU put all phases together in one game? One week the defense forces a half-dozen turnovers. The next game the offense explodes for more than 400 yards. The special teams shine one game, break down the next. There has already been a game where nothing worked – Oregon – so when will there be a game where everything works? If there is, expect the Cougars to win. They have enough pieces now that if all of them come together at the same time, the can play with any team left on the schedule.
• How much longer will 32-point losses be considered progress? Listening to the coaching staff the past week, and especially after Saturday's defeat, that point might have already passed. Despite the youth, despite the injuries, despite everything, it seems like Paul Wulff and his assistants are expecting more. They seem to be getting tired of moral victories, making Saturday's unnecessary and drive-killing penalties, missed tackles, special team lapses, the close-but-no-cigar effort, unacceptable.
• Can WSU upset Notre Dame? The simple answer is yes. The Fighting Irish might be 5-2, but they haven't been impressive, winning four games by seven points or less. And they aren't want you would call speed merchants, the type that causes WSU's defense problems. And the game is not being played in South Bend, with all its tradition and interesting officiating. If the Cougars can pass protect, force turnovers, and execute on special teams, this game will be closer than most experts think.
• That's all for now. As always, we'll be back in the morning. Until then …