PULLMAN – If Paul Wulff’s job is really dependent on winning Saturday’s 103rd Apple Cup, as many pundits seem to think, then Washington State’s head coach may be pinning all his hopes on the nation’s 115th rush defense.
Wulff, finishing up his third season in Pullman, knows the challenge of stopping Washington’s three-pronged attack is a tough one.
“You have to tackle very well,” he said this week. “Their running backs don’t go down easily, so you have to wrap up and really get them down.”
The Huskies (5-6 overall and 4-4 in Pac-10 play) feature tailback Chris Polk, a 5-foot-11, 214-pound sophomore, who needs just 46 yards to hit the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season.
“Polk’s different,” said Wulff, who saw Polk run for 130 yards against the Cougars last year. “He’s a very good player, but unlike (Cal’s Shane) Vereen and (OSU’s Jacquizz) Rodgers and a lot of the guys we’ve faced, he’s so strong he carries guys for extra yards.
“It’s a different style than we have faced.”
But with freshman Jesse Callier, who has 417 yards, 107 of those coming against UCLA two weeks ago, and the senior Locker, 273 yards, many of those when passing plays break down, it is impossible for the defense to key on any one player.
“They have three guys who are all pretty explosive,” Wulff said. “We’re not going to be able to stop their running game, but we have to put them in third-down situations. It could be a long day if we can’t stop the run.”
In last season’s 30-0 victory, UW ran for 283 yards. Such totals were common occurrences earlier this season as well, with WSU giving up more than 200 yards on the ground in four of its first six games.
But that was before the Cougars moved freshmen Deone Bucannon (strong safety) and C.J. Mizell (middle linebacker) into the starting lineup. The two are first (Bucannon, 77) and fourth (Mizell, 55) in tackles a little over half the season of regular playing time.
After No. 1 Oregon dropped WSU to 1-5 on the season, WSU (2-9, 1-7) was yielding 255 yards per game on the ground. Going into today, it is 212.
“We played fairly well against the run against Cal and Oregon State,” Wulff said.
Part of the defense’s improvement has been a parallel improvement of WSU’s offense, which is doing a better job of moving the ball and keeping possession.
Last season the WSU offense finished 119th out of 120 FBS schools, averaging 249.6 yards per game, and 118th in time of possession, with 26 minutes, 18 seconds per game.
This year the Cougars, led by the passing of quarterback Jeff Tuel and the receiving tandem of Jared Karstetter and Marquess Wilson, are averaging 338.8 yards, 85th nationally, and 63rd in time of possession, at 29:56.
“(Tuel has) two wideouts out there on the perimeter that make plays for him in Wilson and Karstetter,” said UW coach Steve Sarkisian. “They present a lot of issues, and (Tuel’s) the reason why, because of his ability to throw and to run.”
Tuel was injured and missed last year’s Apple Cup, so the sophomore is eager to see what the fuss is about.
“It hurt a little bit,” to not be able to play, he said, “just because I heard so much about it. It’s the game of the year. All that people care about is the Apple Cup, it seems like.
“No matter how your season’s going, if you win the Apple Cup, it was a great year.”
If Tuel needs advice, there are always those willing to share. But none can give better than former WSU quarterback Alex Brink, who won three of his four Apple Cups.
“Just embrace the rivalry itself,” Brink said this week. “Sometimes you go into these games and you feel all the eyes watching you. The whole state’s watching that game.
“You’ve just got to enjoy that moment, because it’s so much fun.”
And if Wulff needs advice on handling the slings and arrows of his critics, well, Tuel for one doesn’t think he needs any.
“Any man that receives that much criticism, it’s easy to put your head down and get down and feel sorry for yourself,” Tuel said. “It’s just adversity. We all battle it. And he’s fighting it strong.
“We know where we are at right now,” Tuel added. “We know we’re almost there. And we know it’s going to be special, it’s going to be pretty when it’s all said and done.”