PULLMAN – Until Paul Wulff can put together a football team that has a ghost of a chance on a Saturday afternoon, let this be a suggestion that Washington State sell tickets to its senior staff meetings instead.
More physical play.
More campus drama.
More trash talk.
If the burning dumpster to protest the campus alcohol policy was the symbol of Cougar defiance of the ’90s, then the faculty fistfight will do for the ’00s.
And an end zone seat to watch the high-falutin’ ex-provost and the temperamental finance VP shout and shove has to be more coveted than a ticket on the 50 to view the ongoing bummer of Cougar football, which reached all sorts of new lows Saturday in a 69-0 pasting delivered by the merciful bullies of USC.
That 25,118 redeemed their coupons to witness the carnage is surprising enough, given that the Cougs had already surrendered 60-plus three times this season and were mere 42-point underdogs. Arching the eyebrows even more was that it wasn’t the smallest Martin Stadium crowd to watch USC since the Trojans deigned to start coming here again in 1984.
But in 1991 and 1999, there were mitigating circumstances: the Trojans were lousy. And while a Coug fan might put up with one miserable team, he doesn’t have to sit still for two.
So, how much misery will the Cougs and their constituents sit still for?
“Something has to change,” said Cougars defensive end Andy Mattingly. “There’s no ifs about it. We as players have to step it up and change this.”
There are any number of ways to read that, ranging from honest self-realization to a loss of faith in their coaches. The guess is, there are pockets of both among the 114 names on the Wazzu roster, inevitable in a season of such discontent.
But it has become this bad: there is now anxiety on the other sideline.
As the Trojans waltzed to touchdown after touchdown, coach Pete Carroll confessed to being “kind of uncomfortable to see what was going to happen” – to the point that USC, in range of another score, headed toward the tunnel with 17 seconds still remaining in the first half.
“I feel terrible for (Wulff),” Carroll said. “I mean, those guys are busting their tails. They’re trying to do everything they can to find something positive. It’s as hard as you can get. They’re so hurt. They had to protect the quarterback – they don’t have anybody else to play.”
It’s true – the Cougar staff did almost as much to harness their offense as the Trojan defense did, throwing just nine passes in an attempt to both shorten the game and to lessen the hard knocks on Kevin Lopina, who four weeks ago suffered a broken back yet was trotted out Saturday as the only healthy, available quarterback. Brandon Gibson, the gifted receiver who should be breaking records, saw one ball come his way, and touched it two other times on runs.
Wulff didn’t see it as a white flag and Gibson – understanding the circumstances – tried not to take it that way.
“But I like to have the ball in my hands,” he said. “I think I can make plays and help us get yards and points.”
The more trumpeted casualty was the end of Wazzu’s streak of not being shut out at 280 games, but that sort of thing is a happy accident – and would have ended 14 years ago if not for the brief bit of nastiness that was the Palouse Posse. This current nadir qualifies as an accident, too, though it required years of negligence.
And a contrived streak long ago kept alive by pointless field goals isn’t going to repair the Cougar psyche, on the field or in the stands. Indeed, the day’s most embarrassing moment Saturday was the booing that gurgled up when Carroll didn’t kick what would have been a gratuitous field goal on fourth down – in the middle of the second quarter.
But then, 69-0 is pretty embarrassing, too, and makes for difficult counseling in the locker room.
“A lot of guys are getting used to losing,” Mattingly said, “and it doesn’t piss them off that we’re losing this bad.”
Have the Cougs stopped competing?
“They’re competing, but what happens is we get down – by quite a few points – and the emotion leaves us,” Wulff said. “It’s not that they’re quitting. You look back to Oregon State – we finally had somebody on the team make a few plays. You saw the emotion pick up and all of a sudden, we played some good football.
“Until you make some plays – whether it’s basketball, making a 3-point shot to turn it around, or making a great catch or a great run or an interception – if you don’t get those kinds of plays made it’s hard to pick up your emotion. They lose faith that someone’s going to make a play.”
Well, yes. But jettisoning half the playbook takes a toll on the playmaking, too.
“If every individual on the team would understand that we belong out there and we can make plays,” Mattingly said, “then that would help us out a lot.”
Until then, are there seats available for the next senior staff meeting?