PULLMAN – If Paul Wulff’s job is really dependent on winning today’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, 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, 4-4 Pac-10) 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 time.
“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 running back Jesse Callier, who has 417 yards and senior quarterback Jake Locker with 273, 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 with a little more than 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,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “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.”
If Tuel needs advice, there are always those willing to share. But no one is better qualified 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.”
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