PULLMAN – Washington State University is at the halfway point of its season.
Six games down, six to go, split by maybe the most needed bye week in the school’s more than 100 years of football.
Why? The Cougars are not only 1-5 overall – only a defense-fueled second-half comeback over Southern Methodist is on the left side of the ledger – and 0-4 in the Pac-10, they’ve been outscored 210-89 and average less than 10 points per game in conference.
And they are beat up. Again.
“Hopefully, they can feel a lot better,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said of this week. “We’ve got a lot of bumps and bruises with the guys who are playing. It will be nice to get those guys back feeling as fresh as they can. And, obviously, the guys who are coming back from a bigger injury, so to speak, we can get some of those guys back and feeling better.”
Last season’s 2-11 record was at least partly the result of a multitude of major injuries that hit every unit. This season the injuries aren’t as major – only a handful of WSU players have undergone surgery (there were nearly two dozen in 2008) with all expected to be well enough for offseason training – and they’ve been more localized.
The offensive line has been decimated. The defensive line has been hit hard and the secondary is starting to look a little thin.
“We’ve got to get some bodies back,” Wulff said.
Despite lost players and lost games, the first half has seen the emergence of enough pieces to give Wulff hope for the future. But even those bright spots have been tarnished a bit by health questions.
On the defensive side, Wulff points to the play of true freshman Travis Long as having the biggest impact on a group that’s improved incrementally since last year.
“His ability to physically play at the Pac-10 level,” Wulff said of the defensive end from Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep in answer to a question about Long’s best asset. “He’s competing week in, week out. Can he finish the second half of the season like he’s played the first half? That’s always the biggest challenge for young football players.
“But, to do what he’s done the first six games of his college career, right out of high school, is impressive.”
Long, who has started every game, has 27 tackles (most for a defensive lineman) and two sacks.
But another defensive player who Wulff felt was starting to emerge, redshirt freshman cornerback Daniel Simmons, illustrates the steps back.
Simmons, who had become the Cougars’ best cover corner, broke his leg last week against Arizona State and will be lost for the rest of the season. He’s the third member of the secondary to suffer a season-ending injury.
The two offensive players Wulff singled out as taking huge strides also illustrate that point. Guards B.J. Guerra and Zack Williams haven’t played together in three weeks, though both could be back for the California game on Oct. 24.
“They were as good as Pac-10 guards as you are going to find,” Wulff said. “They have the ability and they’re both very early in their playing career but they both have already physically shown they can do some great things.”
Those two – and the other four key offensive linemen currently trying to bounce back from injuries, including starters Kenny Alfred and Steven Ayers – are crucial for WSU to achieve Wulff’s second-half goal.
“An identity on offense,” Wulff said, “to get some consistency on offense. … There are talented young parts there. We just have not come together completely.
“We would like to make some big strides this second half of the year in that development of our offense.”