SEATTLE – So the long Palouse nightmare is over.
At least, that’s what Paul Wulff and the Washington State Cougars would have you believe.
“We’ve got a chance to make a huge step as a team next year,” Wulff said in the wake of Saturday’s 30-0 loss to rival Washington, which took the Apple Cup to new levels of torpor and irrelevance.
“The pieces are there to make a big, big step. A lot of players will be back on this football team that are going to make a big, big difference next year.”
Not just big. Big, big.
A big, big step, and a big, big difference.
OK, then. Make it.
Make the big, big step away from the devastation that was inherited in the coaching changeover at the end of the 2007 season. Away from the ubiquitous hedging about the cattle call of callow freshmen forced into action. Away from the Job-esque sighs about the endless injury list. Away from the what-are-you-going-do shrugs.
All are aspects of the Cougar condition that have been irrefutably real and without instant solution.
But now there needs to be more.
More victories? Never mind that. Start with more meaningful moments – second halves that matter, fourth quarters with drama. Hell, first quarters with drama.
More did-you-see-that plays. More how-about-that-guy players. More questions about in-game strategy.
Fewer questions about mere hope.
Once again, that’s what the conversation turned to after the 102nd Apple Cup, the first in more than 40 years to produce a shutout.
Oh, there was a brief flutter of the needle on the interest gauge Saturday. For the first time all season, the Cougars forced a punt on the opponent’s opening possession. Then they actually threatened to score themselves with a well-timed trick play, only to see the pass slightly overthrown and undercaught. At the end of a quarter, the Huskies led just 3-0.
But then came the inevitable – quarterback roulette (fourth stringer Dan Wagner saw emergency duty), an epidemic of dropped passes (six), the fatigue of a defense left with a disproportionate burden.
The Huskies beat the Vegas spread (241/2) but not the in-house number (tight end Kavario Middleton said UW wanted to “put up 50 points” and “run the score up”). In the end, a painfully mediocre team beat a dreadfully awful one. Also, the Cougars were introduced to prerecorded dog barking piped over the Husky Stadium loudspeakers on third down, the worst Pac-10 theatrical touch since the USC band discovered how annoying it was to play “Conquest” 312 times a game.
A fitting end to a frightful ordeal, though to his credit Wulff did not rise to the bait when he was asked in the postgame if he was “happy the season was over with” – the inference being everyone should be.
So be happy for him.
A 1-11 season – and an 0-fer in the Pac-10 since Mike Price’s 1998 team – was difficult enough for all, but the argument that these Cougs showed no improvement seemed to nettle Wulff the most, though it’s legitimate.
“I know people are going to look at scores and records and that’s fine,” said Wulff. “But when you’re inside on a daily basis and deal with these kids … there’s a huge difference in attitude and behavior and how positive they are.
“To a man they’re ecstatic about the future of Cougar football. You ask them and they’ll tell you they’re going to bring the Cougars back to the Rose Bowl. Whether it’s cocky or not, there’s that kind of confidence in this football team.”
Enthusiasm is good. It’s just not necessarily a predictor.
“I thought we were going to have a good season this year,” said running back Dwight Tardy.
Still, you have to like the spunk of redshirting freshman Arthur Burns, who as he headed into the Husky Stadium tunnel took another glance at the scoreboard and told a teammate, “It’s going to be the opposite next year.” And the determination of Gino Simone, a freshman who started 11 games “knowing this year was going to be a long year.
“But it’s really not – if we could get going again tomorrow we’d be ready to. We’re that fired up about where this program is headed and the kind of team we’re going to put out next year.”
What kind of team is that? One that doesn’t just play hard, as this one did, but actually competes?
That’s a big, big step.
Paul Wulff and the Cougs need to take that step, or else it won’t be difficult to rationalize taking a different one.