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Cougs try to relax

Alex Hoffman-Ellis’ interception was one of five turnovers for WSU’s defense (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)
Alex Hoffman-Ellis’ interception was one of five turnovers for WSU’s defense (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

Playing tight blamed for past two rough starts

PULLMAN – There’s going to be a little more relaxed look to Washington State University’s football practices 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 past 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 ranked third until being upset 16-13 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-America safety Taylor Mays.

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

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, so his trust level is growing amongst his teammates and coaches. … There’s a lot of talent there,” Wulff said. “It’s been great to see him take a big leap in his performance.”