by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Forgive Wazzu HC Paul Wulff for thinking that he must have been playing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and getting a lifeline from Meredith Vieira after last season in the Palouse. That’s because more than a few Pac-10 (er, now let’s make that Pac-12) observers were a bit surprised that new Cougar AD Bill Moos didn’t lower the boom on Wulff after last year’s 2-10 mark. It brought Wulff’s three-season record in Pullman to a numbing 5-32, with only two conference wins over that span. But Moos, a onetime Cougar lineman in the early ‘70s (as was Wulff in the late ‘80s), has a feel for Wazzu to which few administrators can relate.

Moos is a student of Cougar gridiron history, having experienced it first-hand in his college days, and knows that it isn’t always the best idea to pull the plug on a coaching regime when things seem to be going bad. Rebuilding situations often take some time, as Moos knew from his early years as an undergrad at Wazzu which coincided with some of the darkest days of the program under HC Irish Jim Sweeney, who almost posted back-to-back winless seasons in 1969 and ‘70. Only a one-point win over a wretched Illinois side in the opener kept the Cougars from a winless 1969, and we recall watching that helpless team in which its starting QB, Santa Ana, Ca. native Jack Wigmore (one of the lesser-decorated QBs from storied Mater Dei High, ranking somewhere behind Heisman winners John Huarte and Matt Leinart, plus recent Hawaii star Colt Brennan, in Monarchs lore), threw all of 4 TD passes that entire season. Then, Moos was suiting up with the varsity the next season in 1970 when Wazzu might have even been worse than the previous year, surrendering 63, 45, 54, and 70 points in one late-season four-week stretch during another dismal 1-win campaign, saved the big donut only by a victory over lower-division local foe Idaho.

But Sweeney had begun to lay the foundation for a competitive team, and Wazzu emerged as an unlikely Rose Bowl contender in 1971, with a percolating offense behind QB Ty Paine and RBs Bernard Jackson (who went on to a solid pro career as a DB, including a starting role on Denver’s 1977 AFC champs) and Ken Grandberry (who played in the NFL with the Bears)...plus a rugged junior G named Bill Moos. That set the table for a real breakthrough in 1972 to 7-4 in Moos’ senior year in which he moved to a tackle spot, with the Cougs denied a possible bowl berth only by the Draconian Pac-8 (as it was called then) rules of the day which limited postseason appearances to the conference winner only. Moos ended that season participating in the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco (remember when that game really meant something?).

Thus, the bottom line for Moos, who also served as AD at Oregon, was that the program showed progress last year for Wulff beyond the mere 2 wins that doubled the success total from 2009. Unlike the previous two campaigns, the Cougs were fairly competitive in most of their losses last season. Late-season efforts likely convinced Moos to give Wulff one more shot, as a 23 ½ -point underdog Wazzu throttled host Oregon State by a 31-14 count in mid-November, sandwiched around two very competitive losses to Cal and Washington in a thrilling Apple Cup. The trajectory seemed upward, and Moss realized that Wulff, who inherited a carcass of a program from Bill Doba in 2008, was probably due one more chance to complete the turnaround...just as Jim Sweeney was given the same chance when entering his fourth season forty years ago.

Wulff, however, realizes that not even Vieira or Regis Philbin are going to provide any assistance this season if he can’t significantly build upon last year’s W-L record. The upgrades have to start translating into wins, and though the Cougs might not need a bowl berth (which would be their first since 2003) for Wulff to stay in the saddle, they are best advised to be in the hunt for one if Wulff is to last into 2012.

Sixteen starters are back in the fold from last season, but we can reduce much of the analysis to evaluating the shoddy line play on both offense and defense that has rendered WSU helpless much of the past three years. If the Cougs can’t improve in the pits, Wulff might as well post a for sale sign in front of his house right now. Wazzu hasn’t been able to run the football almost since the days of Rueben Mayes in the mid ‘80s, and ranked a poor 117th nationally in rushing last year at a measly 91 ypg, better than the 119th ranking of the previous year but the third straight season in which Wazzu hasn’t been able to crack 100 ypg on the ground. Moreover, the OL permitted a frightening 51 sacks, ranking 119th nationally in a category that spells real trouble. We're not sure it's good thing that three starters return along the forward wall, although Wulff opened up competition along the OL (and all other positions) in spring.

Brave jr. QB Jeff Tuel returns after flashing some real upside the past two years despite spending much of the time running for his life. Tuel’s mobility is thus more of a necessity than an asset for this offense, but he still found time to pass for over 2700 yards and 18 TD passes a year ago. Returning wideouts sr. Jared Karstetter (a reliable possession type who caught 62 passes LY) and soph Marquess Wilson (a smooth-gliding deep threat whose 55 catches gained 1006 yards, the most by any frosh in 2010) are established quality targets. Meanwhile, Pac-12 insiders indicate that frosh WR Rahmel Dockery, a fleet 170-pounder from Tacoma, has the potential to become an immediate deep threat if he can get his academics in order in time to become eligible. But there is only so much damage Wazzu can inflict if it remains one-dimensional, hence the importance of improved work along the OL to hopefully open up some room for a beleaguered corps of RBs. Senior RB Logwone Mitz is a punishing 230-lb. slammer, but Wulff and o.c. Todd Sturdy could really use a back with more quicks to compensate for the absence of running room. Northwest sources suggest that jackrabbit-like RS frosh Rickey Galvin, whose 2010 campaign ended with a broken arm in the opening loss at Oklahoma State, could be that weapon.

Even if the playmaking Tuel gives the Cougs a chance in expected shootouts, Wazzu will eventually fail if its “D” can’t stop anybody a bit better than the past two years, when ranking a woeful 120th and 118th, respectively, in total defense. Much like the offense, an inability to establish ground in the pits has proven costly, as any opponent with a competent infantry has been able to bulldoze the Cougs, who last year yielded 220 ypg on the ground (ranking 115th) and a whopping 5.6 ypc. Realizing that he needed help immediately, Wulff put out a distress call to the JC ranks, and enlisted several juco defensive linemen to hopefully plug the gaps. Wulff and d.c.’s Chris Ball and Jody Sears were particularly seeking more impact from the edge and loaded up on new DEs, the best of whom likely to be Butler (Kan.) CC transfer Ian Wright, who had already moved into a first-string role in spring. Along with returnee DE Travis Long, WSU’s best defender in 2010 and a Pac-10 honorable mention pick, Wulff might have a nasty pair of bookends on the DL for the first time in his tenure. A 296-lb. RS frosh DT, Kalafitoni Pole, could also make an impact if he has recovered from a spring knee injury and satisfies some academic issues in summer. If the DL is upgraded, the whole platoon likely benefits as the LBs and DBs won’t have to spend all of their time in run support. A young secondary started two frosh and two sophs last season and can only benefit from that baptism under fire, although the Cougs remains smallish on the corners (sophs Nolan Washington and Damante Horton are both very generously listed at 5'10). As soft as the “D” was last year when allowing 36 ppg, it’s come a long way from Wulff’s first stop unit in 2008 that allowed a then-NCAA record 570 points (since eclipsed by East Carolina’s 572 conceded a year ago).

Pointspread-wise, Wulff’s WSU, mostly a heavy underdog, has actually held its own, covering 15 of its last 28 on the board, and closed 2010 with a rush by covering 6 of its last 8. As a big dog getting 20 points or more, the Cougs have covered 13 of their last 19 since mid 2008.

Summary...Wulff realizes that he won’t get another mulligan from AD Bill Moos this season, so the Cougs either threaten .500 or look for another coach in December. The more optimistic sorts in the Palouse point to a favorable schedule in the first month (Idaho State and UNLV at home, then at San Diego State, Colorado, and UCLA) and believe a 5-0 start is possible, which would be quite a neat trick for a team that has won once on the road in Wulff’s three years. But plenty of competitive efforts last fall indicate that a breakthrough might not be far away, especially if QB Tuel stays healthy and the juco newcomers on defense make an immediate impact. For what it’s worth, Moos is pulling out all the stops, even introducing a radical new uniform look (of course inspired by Nike) not too unlike his former employer Oregon. Whether that fashion statement helps move Wazzu from roadkill to bowl contender status remains to be seen.

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