STILLWATER, Okla. – It only happened once last season. And it came in the season’s third game.
The “it” would be a Washington State University football victory, of which there have been just three the past two seasons.
But there has been a confident air wafting over WSU’s practice field the past few weeks, a cologne based on equal parts of hard work through the summer, improved talent, key players returning healthy and the usual new-season optimism.
The Cougars will try to justify that confidence today when they face Oklahoma State, second-place finishers last season in the Big 12 South and winners of nine games each of the past two seasons.
The nonconference game kicks off at 4 p.m. PDT before an expected crowd of at least 50,000 in Boone Pickens Stadium.
So just what would a win mean to this young – 24 of the 70 players traveling will be taking the field in their first major college game – group of Cougars?
“It’s a tough question,” said junior wide receiver Jared Karstetter, the Ferris High graduate who has suffered through the two 11-loss seasons of the past couple of years. “As far as this season, winning the first game would build the confidence and momentum we’re looking for and working toward. It would be huge.”
It also won’t be easy.
Though Oklahoma State returns just three starters on defense (that includes linebacker Orie Lemon, who missed last season with an injury) and four on offense (only one of which is an offensive lineman), the Cowboys under coach Mike Gundy have built a deep program with playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Running back Kendall Hunter, a senior who has rushed for 2,633 yards in his career, was an All-American in 2008 before missing much of last season with injuries. Safety Markelle Martin, defensive end Ugo Chinasa and Lemon should all earn all-conference honors this season.
But the Cowboys are young as well, with 14 freshmen – true or redshirt – on their depth chart.
No matter. This Washington State team doesn’t care about others’ problems. It will take anything it can get.
“It could be a big win for a lot of reasons,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “Just getting a win, for one, and two, doing it on the road against a quality opponent, in a tough place to play, I think there would be a lot of real positives we could take from it.”
The last nine times WSU has taken the field, it has ended negatively. And the last time anything positive came on the road was in November 2007, the 42-35 Seattle Apple Cup win, then-coach Bill Doba’s final game.
Since then the Cougars have struggled to stay in games, including being outscored in the first quarter last season by 170 points. They lost all nine 2009 Pac-10 games by an average of nearly 34 points a game, they only scored 18 total touchdowns – two by the defense – last season and finished the year near the bottom nationally in almost every major statistical category.
Today’s game is their first chance to start excising those memories.
“After the last two seasons, any win is huge for our program right now,” Karstetter said. “You go out and set goals for a season. Our first goal is this game. If we were to go out and get that, it would be a huge step for us.
“It would kind of jump-start the season for us.”