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WSU’s kickoff return coverage best in nation

PULLMAN – Forgive Paul Wulff if he does some bragging. After all, the NCAA statistics haven’t been kind to the Washington State Cougars the past couple of years.

But there it is, in black and white pixels on the website. The nation’s No. 1 FBS team in kickoff return yardage defense: Washington State.

The Cougars have had 16 kickoffs returned against them this season – they also have nine touchbacks – for 251 yards, an average of 15.69 yards per return.

That total includes one Saturday versus Oregon that resulted in a thundering Anthony Carpenter hit, a Duck fumble and Kenjon Barner spending a night at Pullman Regional Hospital. He was released Sunday and headed back to Eugene.

“Our kickoff coverage is actually very good,” Wulff said Sunday night on his weekly conference call. “We’re leading the country … and that speaks volumes about that.”

That group was the special-teams highlight in the 43-23 loss to the Ducks. The punt coverage team gave up a 67-yard scoring return to Cliff Harris, there was a bad snap on an extra-point attempt and the kickoff return group continued to miss opportunities.

“Our kickoff return is really close. We’ve got to be a little more dynamic returning the football; there’s more yardage to be had there,” Wulff said, adding WSU may look at defensive back Aire Justin as a returner this week. “On the punt return, we didn’t have a real good kick and then we just didn’t have a lot of field smarts on a couple things. We should have been in position to handle that.

“It was just a combination of a couple things and a great returner who just has great speed.”

As for the rest of the NCAA statistics, don’t ask. Though the Cougars may have played their best defensive game of the season, holding Oregon under its season average in total offense and rushing, WSU still slid to 120th – or last – in both those categories nationally.

And, for the first time in a few weeks, Wulff had to talk about a few injuries.

Starting right tackle Micah Hannam suffered a mild concussion. He may be able to return to practice this week and play Saturday against No. 17 Arizona. Backup defensive end Casey Hamlett, laid out on Harris’ punt return, is suffering from a sore chest and may have to miss some time.

With that in mind, Wulff admitted WSU might have to reduce the midweek hitting, a practice that seems to have improved the Cougars’ physical play and tackling – Wulff said they missed just nine versus the Ducks, less than half the number for each of the previous two games.

“There’s a chance we could throttle back in some areas,” Wulff said. “I think there are a few areas where we can’t afford not to be real physical. It’s something we’re going to kind of wait and see how our players respond (tonight) at our practice.”

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