PULLMAN – Occasionally when a new coach takes charge of a college team, he might insist that he will watch no old film of the players he inherits – that all will start over with the slate clean, with no baggage and no limits left over from the missteps of the old regime.
And, of course, that is one smelly load, the first fib of many.
Still, that would probably be the best way for all of us to approach the 2009 Washington State Cougars, impossible though it may be.
For one thing, the 2008 Cougs were so cringe-inducingly awful that optic surgeons are still backed up removing scars from corneas exposed to the horror. Alas, modern medicine has not yet perfected a memory-ectomy, so there’s only so much corrective action to be taken.
Besides, the current Cougars were still clinging to that hellish reference point Saturday evening, if only to illustrate the gains made in the latest beatdown, a 39-13 loss to Stanford at Martin Stadium that launched – at a single-digit degree – the 2009 football season.
“It’s been a long year to get to this point,” sighed coach Paul Wulff.
Really? To the point of losing by the same score the Cougars lost last year’s season opener, to Oklahoma State – arguably a better team on something closer to a neutral field?
Ah, but we were counseled not to care about the scoreboard a year ago when the weekly math was ugly, and that urging continued Saturday with the explanation that progress – rather than being too tiny to be measured, as it was last season – was so pronounced that it was virtually a different game being played out on the Martin turf.
Actual football, in other words.
Here’s the problem: Only 22,386 witnesses showed up in person, the smallest for a home opener since 2000. If overcoming the internal indifference Wulff encountered in the locker room was a year-long job, it looks as if the public indifference is going to be a more treacherous Everest.
But one mountain at a time.
“A hundred times better,” said Wulff, taking his own temperature. “It’s a big difference, both in attitude and physicality. I know where we’re at and the players feel the same thing.”
Well, in every Pac-10 game, they’re going to be runners-up in size, speed and ability – still. But they’re starting to grasp that it doesn’t have to be a shortcut to surrender.
When the Cardinal steamrollered 66 yards on the opening drive for an 8-0 lead, damned if the Cougs didn’t respond with a 15-play – fifteen! – march of their own, complete with the no-huddle furniture that got burned as firewood in 2008. Yes, the drive ended ignominiously with three whiffs after first-and-goal from the 1-yard line and a cold-bladed field-goal miss, but it was the first sign of Cougar life.
There would be more – a stunning stretch-out catch by tight end Tony Thompson, Eric Block blowing up Stanford’s Chris Owusu to prevent a first down, a couple 50-50 balls that Daniel Blackledge and Jared Karstetter refused to give up on, Andy Mattingly chasing down Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck from halfway to Albion.
But those were just, well, plays. Stanford had something extra – two long touchdowns by Owusu on a short pass and a kickoff return that were both ineptly defended, and a somewhat gratuitous 39-yard touchdown on fourth down in the final quarter that finally got rugged Toby Gerhart his 100-yard day.
“That was the big difference in the game,” Wulff contended.
OK, but even outside of that first drive and Gerhart’s last run, the Cardinal averaged 5.3 a rush, and the Cougs still had four three-and-outs. What was last year the nation’s most turnover-happy offense made none – but neither did the defense force one.
“We’ve got to make some plays,” said co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball. “We’ve got to knock a ball down, pick one off, get on a fumble. Let’s get just one of them and it’s a starting point.”
But on this afternoon, the Cougars are convinced they found another one.
“There were moments we could have pitched the tent and given up,” Thompson said. “I didn’t see that. That’s where I’m proudest of our guys, for fighting on every play.”
That sort of fight is supposed to be a given for the fellows on scholarship, though the Cougs of 2008 proved too often that it isn’t so. In the meantime, the current Cougs might want to resist congratulating themselves on simply showing some siccum. In truth, 39-13 is no one’s idea of a ballgame.
Least of all the 13,000 or so who found anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon.