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WSU looks back, ahead


COUGARS

We have yet to have dinner, so this will be quick. You don't want to get between me and food. On the link you'll find the unedited versions of our look back at the SMU game and our follow story. Read on.
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• Here's the story ...

PULLMAN – There's going to be a little more relaxed look to Washington State University's football practice this week.

Not solely because the Cougars are coming off their first win of the season, 30-27 in overtime Saturday over Southern Methodist, though that's part of it.

It's mainly due to the way WSU has started the last two ballgames.

"This is a very young football team in terms of game experience," WSU coach Paul Wulff said Sunday night. "So what you get are guys who are trying to do everything right without a tremendous amount of background and experience. And we've pressed, trying to do the right thing.

"We've come out too tight."

So will Wulff take a page out of former Cougar coach Mike Price's book and show up at practice dressed like Tommy Trojan to get his team to relax?

"No," Wulff said, chuckling. "Actually, I've done things before. But we will work on being relaxed this week and be excited for the opportunity."

That opportunity is traveling to Los Angeles and playing the 12th-ranked USC Trojans (2-1), who were third-ranked until being upset 16-13 last Saturday in Seattle.

It was an outcome that didn't surprise Wulff, citing USC's unsettled quarterback situation and the absence of the Trojans' defensive QB, All-American safety Taylor Mays.

"And you look at some of the statistics, that they were 0-10 on third down and turn the ball over three times in the red zone," Wulff added. "There not going to win a ballgame (doing that). It's pretty tough to stay in a ball game."

But the Trojans are still the Trojans, and Wulff knows his team must be right this week. The early line has USC, a 69-0 winner last year in Pullman, favored by 43 points.

And WSU (1-2) will take the field with a rebuilt offensive line.

Starting right guard B.J. Guerra went down on the fourth play Saturday with a sprained medial collateral ligament and will miss the next four-to-six weeks. With starting left guard Zack Williams out for at least another week with a high ankle sprain, the Cougars are scrambling up front.

The group that finished Saturday, with Steven Ayers, usually a tackle, and Brian Danaher at guard flanking starting center Kenny Alfred and reserve Tyson Pencer joining Micah Hannam at tackle, will probably play together from the start this week.

No matter what happens on offense, Wulff is hoping for the same type of turnover-forcing effort from the WSU defense. The Cougars had four interceptions and recovered a fumble.

"Defensively, we gave up some big plays to give up some scores," Wulff said, "But we made way more big plays than we gave up."

One player who contributed in that area was senior linebacker Jason Stripling, a game captain for the first time. Stripling led WSU with nine tackles.

"What Jason is doing is becoming more and more consistent," Wulff said, "so his trust level is growing amongst his teammates and coaches. ... There's a lot of talent there. It's been great to see him take a big leap in his performance."

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• And the look back ...

WSU 30, SMU 27 (OT)

• High point of the game

Was it either of the two interception returns for touchdowns? Was it Jared Karstetter's 33-yard, tip-to-himself catch that gave WSU hope near the end of the first half? Was it Nico Grasu's game-ending field goal? We vote for a simpler, shorter play, the 7-yard scoring pass from Marshall Lobestael to Karstetter that tied the score with 28 seconds left. The play called wasn't one the Cougars prepped for the game plan, but one they had practiced numerous times on their own over the summer. If they hadn't, they might not have won.

• Low point of the game

After a Reid Forrest punt had pinned the Mustangs at their 7-yard line, SMU marched out to midfield with a series of short passes. On first-and-10 from the WSU 49, Bo Levi Mitchell found Emmanuel Sanders for the biggest of his 18 catches. The 45-yard high-arching completion came at the expense of Eric Block, who suffered an arm injury on the bomb, and set the Mustangs up at the 4. Zach Line powered in on the next play, despite the Cougars having 12 men on the field. It was 17-0, a little over 8 minutes remained before half the outlook was bleak.

• A pat on the back

Fifth-year senior Jason Stripling's Washington State career hasn't been what he dreamed of when he came to Pullman from Tyler, Texas. Years lost to injuries and academics meant Stripling was an afterthought going into his final season. But from the first day this fall Strip, as his teammates call him, showed he belonged on the field. This week those same teammates voted him captain. And he responded, leading the way with nine tackles, including seven solo and one for a loss, playing almost every one of WSU's 84 plays on defense.

• Needs fixing

Even though the defense has given up 1,130 yards of total offense the past two weeks, getting the offensive line right this week will be even more important. The Cougars won't have their two horses in the middle, guards Zack Williams and B.J. Guerra. The group WSU puts on the Coliseum turf Saturday will have to pass protect as well as it did during the last drive versus SMU and run block much better than it did at any time. If it doesn't, WSU won't be able to keep its defense off the field.

• Three unanswered questions

• Which quarterback is Lobbestael? There were two on the field Saturday. There was the one who played most of the game and there was the one who showed up as time was running down. In the final drive of the first half and the game-tying drive to end regulation, Lobbestael was 10 of 14 for 113 yards and two touchdowns. The rest of the game he was 14 of 38 for 126 yards and two interceptions. The time-winding-down quarterback is the one WSU needs all game.

• Can the defense quickly switch to stopping the run? The last two weeks, WSU has played a lot of nickel and 3-3-5 schemes to control the run-and-shoot offenses of Hawaii and SMU. Now they face the challenge of the best offensive line in the Pac-10. Even in defeat Saturday the Trojans ran for 250 yards. They did lose two fumbles, and those turnovers helped Washington control the game. WSU better be ready to do the same thing.

• How ticked off will USC be? After losing to Oregon State on the road to open the Pac-10 season last year, the Trojans went back to Los Angeles and pounded a pretty darn good Oregon team 44-10. Which doesn't bode well for the Cougars, who probably shouldn't be considered in the same category as the Ducks last season. WSU better be ready for USC's best effort.

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• That's it for tonight. We'll be back in the morning with the typical links. Until then …




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Vince Grippi
Vince Grippi is a freelance local sports blogger for spokesman.com. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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