PULLMAN – Each of Washington State’s three nonconference football games this season carry with them a subtext for Cougar coach Paul Wulff.
Last week it was Idaho State, coached by his friend and mentor, Mike Kramer. Next week it is San Diego State, where the man who hired Wulff to coach the Cougars, Jim Sterk, is the athletic director.
This week isn’t as personal. Or as congenial.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas comes to town, coached by former Montana head coach Bobby Hauck.
If you know anything about Big Sky Conference football, you know there is no love lost between the Grizzlies and Eastern Washington, where Wulff coached for 15 years, the final eight as head coach.
Wulff’s teams met Hauck’s Grizzlies five times, with Montana coming out on top four of those. All were rivalry games that included elements of any rivalry: bad blood, questioned officiating, tight finishes, big crowds.
So when the two coaches’ teams meet Saturday, the only element that may still be in play is the last, as WSU is expecting a crowd around 28,000.
“You were dealing with teams that were competing for championships and playing at a high level,” Wulff said earlier this week of the previous meetings. “And that was an annual thing. There was a lot of familiarity because you face them every year.”
“This is different,” Wulff added. “This is a nonconference game against a team you don’t face every year.”
And in the ever-changing world of college football, those days are ancient history.
All that matters now is Hauck’s 0-1 UNLV team, his second group since taking over a rebuilding project last season.
The Rebels were 2-11 in his first year and opened this one with a 51-17 loss at then-No. 11 Wisconsin.
Yet Hauck, a former UW assistant who was 80-17 in seven years at Montana, wasn’t all that upset after the game.
“We’re going to be all right,” Hauck told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I really believe that. I like our guys. I like the way they play. There are a lot of negatives from the game, but there are a lot of positives we can take and build off of.”
The Rebels will be facing a WSU team that lost starting quarterback Jeff Tuel in last week’s 64-21 rout of Idaho State, though Hauck doesn’t believe facing an offense run by fifth-year senior Marshall Lobbestael will make that much of a difference.
“Washington State is a system-based offense and we expect them to run their normal plays,” Hauck said this week. “Obviously, when you have a senior coming off the bench to back up at that position, it’s a little different than a freshman or redshirt freshman or somebody who hasn’t played much.
“So you just don’t see the same amount of drop-off that you do in the other situations.”
Stopping Lobbestael and the Cougars might be a problem if UNLV doesn’t generate more of a pass rush. After posting just 12 sacks last season, they rarely pressured Wisconsin’s quarterbacks in the opener, posting just one sack.
Such was not the case for UNLV sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring, making his first college start. Though he threw for 146 yards, he was sacked three times. And it could have been more, but Herring showcased his ability to run, helping spark a rushing attack that had another 146 yards against the Badger defense.
“Their running game is definitely a concern,” Wulff said. “(Herring) can run it and that adds a whole different dimension to what you have to defend.”
But he’s not alone.
“They’ve got good speed at tailback,” said Wulff, alluding to Bradley Randle and Tim Cornett, who rushed for 65 and 61 yards, respectively, “and they give you a lot of different looks, a lot of formations.
“They do a good job of disguising things and forcing you to be sound and disciplined on defense.”