SEATTLE – As the curtain fell on another Mediocrity Cup, the great disconnect of football at Washington State was again revealed.
Today or Monday, Cougars athletic director Bill Moos will huddle with coach Paul Wulff for a palm reading and everyone will have the answer they’ve been demanding – though, of course, not the one they necessarily prefer. That’s not the disconnect.
In the Wulffian world, we’re supposed to regard Cougar football in the big picture – the progress from the woeful nadir of a few years ago, the better athletes (and competitors) who have been recruited, the staff that’s been shored up, the youthful roster, the increased siccum, bad-luck injuries and all that jazz. As a football coach, it seems, Wulff is an Impressionist.
“What I can tell you is that this is a really talented young football team,” he said for the umpteenth time Saturday night. “I think we’ve done a hell of a job recruiting great young kids and the football team has a bright future. That was my job and I’ve been doing that. I’m excited about Cougar football.
“Our program is right on the cusp of being really good.”
But then the games get played, and they are not big-picture views. It’s Realism, not Impressionism.
In the games, all the warts are exposed and the failures are enhanced in replay and slow-motion and the judgments are instant, harsh and unforgiving.
And, boy, was that ever the 104th meeting of rivals Washington and Washington State, a 38-21 semi-romp for the Huskies played out for the first time on pro turf where, despite the presence of 64,559 witness, it seemed less … well, just less.
Oh, not for the Huskies, who rebounded from three straight November losses of a rather sickly nature to impose their will on a lesser team, or at least the one that showed up lesser. The Cougars of the first quarter could only aspire to Big Skyish, and that’s probably not acceptable in Game 12 of Season 4 for the head coach.
The guess is Moos came to his decision before that bit of unraveling, and may have needed an unprecedented Cougar breakthrough against the Huskies to change it.
And it was there for the taking.
Despite all of Wazzu’s first-quarter slapstick, the Huskies wasted many opportunities to turn it into an instant rout. So the Cougars were able to storm back and tie it on the arm of Marshall Lobbestael, the nine-lives quarterback who in his career has replaced or been replaced in non-garbage time scenarios no fewer than 19 times.
The Cougs got it to 14-14 – and then wilted in the last two minutes of the first half to surrender the go-ahead-for-good touchdown on a broken play that quarterback Keith Price and receiver Kasen Williams turned into a keeper.
“That made me sick to my stomach,” said defensive coordinator Chris Ball. “They caught us off guard a little bit. We went with a 30-package and didn’t have a great pass rush. We probably should have gone with a four-man rush. He jumped out and they started scrambling around, running to open spots, and they scored.
“I’d like to have that one back.”
But it was hardly a solitary moment, from the first-possession blocked punt that went for a UW touchdown to the double-pass trickery that was Wazzu’s last chance and turned into a tip-drill interception.
“Guys,” said linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, “just have to do a better job of making plays when their number is called.”
But then, the thing about football is, every player’s number gets called on every play.
This is likely to be at the heart of Moos’ judgment – that despite the obvious gains the Cougars have made, they don’t show up in the most obvious ways: on the scoreboard, or when the games are there to be won or lost.
While Wulff put on his usual best face, Ball more or less acknowledged that while he thinks there’s been “big improvement,” that might not have much impact.
“We can’t worry about that,” he said of Moos’ call. “We were 10-2 and got a 5-year extension and got fired the next year at Alabama with 64 scholarship players out. We’re hired guns.”
In the season’s final game, the Cougars displayed a terrible case of flop sweat, put too much of a burden on a third-option quarterback to make things happen and even endured more drama with linebacker C.J. Mizell, who was in uniform at kickoff and in sweats after intermission – and not because of an injury.
This we have seen, in some form, before.
The problem with progress under Paul Wulff is that, brought into the tighter focus of a game, it too often doesn’t resemble progress at all.