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IN THE SECOND-TO-LAST GAME OF 2010, WASHINGTON STATE went to Oregon State and defeated the Beavers 31--14. That win was either a fluke—one of only two for the Cougars—or a harbinger of better days ahead for a program that has been under massive renovation.
"That game was important, not only because we won but also how we won," says fourth-year coach Paul Wulff. "We put it together and played well in all facets. [And] it was more than that game. If you look at our last three, we were ahead versus Cal and blew that game, then we beat Oregon State. We had three weeks off before the Apple Cup against Washington, and that actually hurt us because we had some rust in the first half. But we still almost won. So it wasn't just Oregon State. We were getting better and better."
Wulff isn't just grasping for positives; the numbers suggest that Washington State might finally be able to compete. Due to departures, Academic Progress Rate deductions and the 25-per-year scholarship limit, the Cougars have played with an incomplete deck for years. They had only 72 scholarship players (out of a possible 85) in 2008, 73 in 2009 and 77 in 2010. "I hear USC complaining about having only 75, but I'll tell you that our 75 has never been USC's 75," Wulff says.
Now, with an (almost) full allotment of scholarship players, including experienced returnees such as quarterback Jeff Tuel and defensive end Travis Long, Washington State should be better—and maybe good enough to sneak into a bowl game for the first time since 2003.
"I look at our schedule and see not only six winnable games but six games we should win," says Tuel. "We've been down for a few years, but we feel it is time to make that jump."
The offensive line needs to play much better—the Cougars were the worst rushing team in the conference in 2010 and allowed 51 sacks. Also, expect more shootouts than defensive battles given Washington State's troubles stopping both the run and the pass last year. Still, there is hope in Pullman for the first time in a while.
"In 2008, my first year, we were not good enough to win in the Big Sky [Conference]," says Wulff. "Now the pieces are there for us to be competitive with any team we play."
COACH Paul Wulff (4th year) 5--32 (2--25 in Pac-10)