PULLMAN – Up until early March, this Saturday was supposed to be a day of raking leaves, cleaning out gutters, changing the oil in the snow blower. Anything but a Washington State football game.
Up until early March, this was one of WSU’s two scheduled bye weeks.
But after March, when Washington State, California, Stanford and the Pac-10 Conference came to an understanding, the Cougars two bye weeks became back-to-back, Nov. 20 and 27.
To review, seven months ago Bill Moos had just started as WSU athletic director. California was scheduled to travel to Pullman on Nov. 20. The Bears were scheduled to play Stanford on Dec. 4. Stanford’s finals start Dec. 6. The Cardinal had a bye Nov. 20. Cal and WSU both had byes Nov. 6. Stanford wanted to play the Bears on Nov. 20.
A deal was struck. Washington State and California would play Nov. 6, the Bears’ game with Stanford would move to Nov. 20 and $400,000 would be sent to Pullman for the Cougars’ trouble.
A win-win? Maybe, except WSU became the only BCS school to play 11 consecutive weeks, which would have been a complete NCAA football schedule up until just five years ago.
“I knew it was going to be challenging from the moment it was discussed,” said coach Paul Wulff this week. “For a football team to go 11 straight weeks at this level is a huge mental and physical challenge.”
Wulff’s foreboding has proven to be true, as the Cougars (1-8 overall, 0-6 in Pac-10 play), relatively healthy for much of the year, have seen their injuries mount the past couple weeks.
“A bye would help right now, with so many guys nicked up,” Wulff said.
But that won’t come for two weeks, then WSU will have back-to-back Saturdays off prior to the season-ending Apple Cup on Dec. 4.
The change was made for two major reasons, Moos explained.
“One was to help accommodate Cal and Stanford,” he said earlier this year. “And they gave us some financial considerations. Along with that, it was my opinion – it was one of the first decisions I made – it allowed us to have a two-week break and our players can go home for Thanksgiving.”
That’s a big deal according to junior guard B.J. Guerra, one of the Cougars nicked up, as he’s fighting a shoulder problem.
Though the long stretch without a bye is “really hard on everybody, mentally and physically,” Guerra said, “this will be my first Thanksgiving home in three years. That will be really nice.
“It will give me an opportunity to take my mind off football, not completely, but I won’t have to stress about it.”
Besides, Guerra said, the 11-week grind has its positives.
“To be honest with you, I really think it’s good for us,” he said. “It shows what type of character we have. It shows what kind of team we are.”
By changing the Cal game from the week before Thanksgiving to this Saturday, the Cougars may have also helped their fans.
The weather – predicted to be in the low 50s with a 50 percent chance of showers – averages about seven degrees warmer on Nov. 6 than Nov. 20.
Plus, since the NCAA added a 12th game, when WSU has played at home the Saturday before Thanksgiving in non-Apple Cup games, it has drawn 22,660 (2007) and 16,167 (2009), the smallest home crowds of both seasons.
Whatever the reasons, whatever the motivation, WSU doesn’t have a bye this Saturday. Instead, a 4-4 California team visits. And Wulff, who said he was part of the conversation about moving the game, knows WSU only has one thing it can do in this 11-week stretch.
“It’s going to strain them,” he said of his team. “And we’re going to have to grind ourselves through the strain. That’s really our only option.”