PULLMAN – The last time Washington State University’s football team flew back to campus from the Midwest, the Cougars were coming off a 48-point pounding.
Saturday night, when they made nearly the same trip, it came on the heels of a 14-point defeat.
And yet, coach Paul Wulff said Sunday night, the atmosphere inside the charter flight was nearly identical.
“The bottom line is we lost the ballgame and I don’t think anybody was very happy about it,” Wulff said.
The Cougars’ 35-21 loss to Southern Methodist in Dallas not only was in sharp contrast to the season-opening blowout at Oklahoma State, it was different than their game with the Mustangs last year.
In that one, SMU dominated in almost every statistical category and WSU found a way to win. Saturday, the teams were nearly even in everything but the final score.
“It goes with turnovers,” was how Wulff explained it. “If you can win the turnover battle, you’re probably going to win the game.”
WSU did that last season, 5-3, with two interceptions resulting in scores. This time there was just one turnover between the teams, an SMU muffed punt that morphed into a Cougar touchdown.
Wulff saw the passing game – WSU had 284 passing yards – and defensive front – four sacks – keeping WSU in the game, and an offensive line that struggled, handcuffing the Cougars’ offense.
“We didn’t block very well,” Wulff said. “They got us with some speed rushers that hurt us. We made some mistakes across the board.”
“The pressure kind of stymied us at times,” Wulff said.
Yet, despite the stress on sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel, WSU actually outgained the SMU run-and-shoot offense through the air, albeit by just 4 yards.
“I thought Jeff handled the pressure pretty well,” Wulff said, pointing out the Cougars didn’t turn the ball over, the first time that’s happened since Cal last season, seven games ago. And, he added, “the receivers did some good things in this ballgame.”
Like Marquess Wilson’s 68-yard touchdown catch and his 44-yarder leaping grab that was negated by a penalty. Or Jared Karstetter’s jump-ball win in the end zone for another score and his block on a one-man screen for Jeffrey Solomon. Or Gino Simone’s acrobatic grab of an off-target 11-yard pass.
“Those guys have to keep growing and developing,” Wulff said.
But the same thing could be said for all the Cougars, who will enter Pac-10 play this weekend against No. 20 USC with the same nonconference record they had last season, 1-2.
“We’ve got to get away from feeling satisfied about every little thing we do better,” Wulff said. “At this point, nothing needs to be making us feel quite good enough.”