PULLMAN – The last time Washington State took the field without Marquess Wilson was Nov. 28, 2009, a game against Washington that the Cougars lost 30-0 to cap a 1-11 season.
Jared Karstetter led WSU in receiving with four catches for 33 yards that day. To put in perspective how much has changed for the Cougars’ passing game since Wilson arrived in 2010, consider that in 33 career games, Wilson has never finished a contest with fewer than 33 receiving yards.
He’s also accounted for nearly 27 percent of WSU’s receiving yards during his record-setting career, as well as 23.7 percent of its catches in that time.
The bad news: He was suspended earlier this week after walking out of a team workout. For the first time in his career, he will not play Saturday against UCLA.
That leaves WSU with a bunch of young guys in its receiving corps. But don’t expect outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons to hang his head about not having Wilson.
“This is not to throw a jab at anybody, so I hope it’s not taken out of context, but it’s a receiver unit,” Simmons said. “What we’re trying to build is a unit. We don’t have Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5.”
In terms of experience, they don’t even have Tito.
But the youngsters have shown promise. Likely to start for the Cougars this week are freshman Gabe Marks, redshirt freshman Dominique Williams (who started the last two games ahead of Wilson, anyway), freshman Brett Bartolone and redshirt sophomore Bobby Ratliff.
Ratliff is the only one of that group who played last season, when he finished fourth on the team with 28 catches for 343 yards. Kristoff Williams and Gino Simone also add experience and a bit of depth to a group that has grown thinner as the year has progressed.
To the advantage of WSU’s freshmen, though – especially first-year players Marks and Bartolone – is that Mike Leach’s system is all they know.
“It’s been a fun year,” Bartolone said. “Obviously, it’s been frustrating, but of course, I love playing football. … It’s been quite an experience being out there, but at the same time, it’s been frustrating.”
Inside receivers coach Eric Morris admits that Bartolone “probably physically wasn’t ready. He needed an offseason to lift and get his body ready for Pac-12 level, but boy he just bangs his body around and does all the right things and practices extremely hard every day.”
Bartolone, a 5-foot-10 slot receiver, has drawn more praise from the coaching staff than anyone. He’s second on the team with 42 catches for 330 yards and, along with Marks (38 catches, 477 yards), earned his way onto the field via strong practices in the fall.
“They weren’t at a disadvantage as far as not knowing the playbook,” Morris said. “They came in and they’ve gotten the same amount of coaching in our system as the other guys had, which speaks volumes to them. Usually when you bring freshmen in, they always hit a wall at some point just because their bodies aren’t ready for this level to take a pounding and run as many routes as they have. So it’s been impressive.”
Dominique Williams has relished his increased playing time – he beat out Wilson for the starting X-receiver spot three weeks ago – by catching 13 passes in WSU’s last three games (he had just three grabs before that), including a six-catch, 79-yard effort against Stanford two weeks ago.
“I think he’s steadily improved his skills,” Leach said. “I think he’s worked hard, I think he’s focused in, I think he’s got some reps in so that he’s relaxed. He’s really taken advantage of his opportunities.”
At this point, that’s all they’re asking.
“They didn’t choose me and I didn’t choose them,” Simmons said. “We happened to come together and we’re trying to make the best out of it that we possibly can. There’s been a little magic that has happened. Not enough. But we’ve still got three games left and we’re going to try to create magic every opportunity we have to go get out on that field.”
BYU game moved
WSU announced Thursday that it has dropped BYU from its 2013 schedule, and will instead play a game against Southern Utah on Sept. 14. BYU’s trip to Pullman will be delayed until the 2019 season. Southern Utah rounds out WSU’s 2013 nonconference schedule, which also includes Auburn (Aug. 31) and Idaho (Sept. 21). WSU athletic director Bill Moos said in a statement that BYU agreed to move the game “at our request,” in order to “provide greater balance to our future schedules.”