PULLMAN – There’s a gap between the schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, like Washington State University, and their counterparts in the Championship Subdivision, like Montana State, and it goes beyond the fact the FCS teams actually have a playoff to determine a national champion.
FCS schools have fewer scholarships, play one less regular season game and, the Montanas of the world aside, have smaller budgets.
That’s why a game at an FBS school is usually a staple of the schedule. One game in Pullman this weekend and the Montana State athletic budget is $375,000 richer.
Winning? That’s an unexpected joy. But when it happens, or even at times when a FCS school gets close, it can make a season. Or occasionally break it.
Washington State coach Paul Wulff knows the drill. He spent eight years at Eastern Washington, like MSU a Big Sky Conference school. His first game as head coach was at Oregon State in 2000 against a Beaver team that would finish 11-1. The final score: OSU 21, EWU 19.
“Our players went in, played their tails off, played good, sound football,” Wulff said. “We didn’t make a lot of mistakes and ended up having a field goal blocked at the end of the half that potentially cost us the ballgame.
“I always felt our goal (playing FBS schools) was to go in and play great football put ourselves in a position to win a ball game.”
So Wulff is aware of the dangers of Saturday’s 4 p.m. matchup with a school with nothing to lose. The Bobcats, who are 0-7 over the years against Washington State, are a veteran group that takes care of the ball and competes with tenacity. They are ranked 23rd this week in the FCS.
And the school has pulled off upsets before.
In 2006 Montana State went into Boulder and upset Colorado, 19-10, ruining the debut of Buffalo coach Dan Hawkins.
The Bobcat head coach that day? Current WSU operations assistant Mike Kramer. That win gave him another lesson in the two-edged sword of playing up.
The next week the Bobcats returned home and lost to Division II Chadron State, 35-24. It started a three-game losing streak.
“It gave us a one-month hangover,” Kramer said of the Colorado upset. “We played very, very well (against Colorado), then couldn’t believe we had won, then couldn’t believe we had to play the rest of the season.”
Kramer also knows the end of playing an FBS school. As an assistant for Dick Zornes at EWU in 1990, he watched as the Eagles lost 84-21 to Houston.
“Having been blistered like that,” Kramer said, “you can see that this thing can turn into a gigantic landslide and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
“If you’re a (FCS) coach, you just try to do the best you can and try to find glimpses of victory at points inside the game.”
Neither Kramer nor Wulff expect anything like that today.
In fact, Wulff sees a MSU team that will challenge Washington State in a myriad of ways. The Cougars have lost 10 consecutive games, are 3-23 in his tenure and are coming off a 65-17 thumping at Oklahoma State in the season opener.
“They have a lot of solid, veteran football players,” Wulff said of the Bobcats. “They’re very sound. You’re absolutely not going to get anything from them. They’re very solid in the their offensive line, they have speed at the skill positions.
“They are a solid football team. They are not going to beat themselves. If you’re going to beat them, you have to play awfully good.”