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Originally published August 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 31, 2008 at 1:37 AM

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Bud Withers

Miserable special teams doom Cougars all afternoon

Paul Wulff knew this wasn't going to be easy, and his youthful Washington State football team proved him omniscient Saturday at Qwest Field, getting spanked 39-13 by Oklahoma State.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Well, that's why they give football coaches five-year contracts.

Paul Wulff knew this wasn't going to be easy, and his youthful Washington State football team proved him omniscient Saturday at Qwest Field, getting spanked 39-13 by Oklahoma State.

Maybe Wulff knew what he was getting into back in December, when he was hired from Eastern Washington to replace Bill Doba. Maybe he knew it from the looks of winter workouts.

If he wasn't sure by then, the realization came on the first day of spring practice last March.

"Tell you what," Wulff said in a small interview room, "our first day of spring football, we were amazed at how many kids didn't even know how to get into a proper stance on some of the special teams, particularly the punt team.

"We started at Ground Zero."

Mission accomplished on that stance thing. But the Cougars showed they haven't perfected a lot of the other nuances of special teams, like getting a guy or two to attack the middle of the field on a kickoff return.

Cougars special teams were, in a word, miserable against the Cowboys, a term frequently applied to that part of the game under Doba. Had the Cougars performed impeccably on them, they likely still wouldn't have won the game, but their inability to cover a punt or kick — or make an extra point — flatters Oklahoma State's final margin.

Steve Broussard, the former WSU running back who played with Wulff a generation ago, willingly took responsibility as chief of special teams.

"That was probably one of the biggest debacles," Broussard said.

If you're groping for a ray of sunshine this morning regarding WSU's special teams, this might have to do: At least the Cougars didn't try a fake punt, which they repeatedly bungled in the Doba regime.

Signs weren't good for special teams even a few weeks ago. Early in July, punter Reid Forrest, who averaged 40.5 yards last year using rugby-style kicks, stepped in a hole while practicing and broke an ankle. He should return in a couple of weeks, but in his absence, WSU shoved into the breach Dan Wagner, a walk-on quarterback from Portland who punted in high school.

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Wagner had a couple of boots that looked a lot like two-irons, and Oklahoma State had returns of 42 and 68 yards. In fact, because of that first one, the Cowboys' first possession of the season began at the WSU 26.

It was 15-0 at halftime, and the Cougars' streak of having scored in 273 straight games seemed in growing jeopardy, since WSU never creased the midfield stripe before intermission.

Then the Cougars turned to the run, produced six first downs and a touchdown, and it was a still-tenable 18-6 with six minutes left in the third quarter. That's when junior-college transfer kicker Patrick Rooney's boot went to the middle of the field, to Oklahoma State's Perrish Cox, and he saw a lane as expansive as the 520 bridge being proposed. Ninety yards later, and nary a hand laid on Cox, WSU had squandered some hard-earned momentum.

"We want the ball on the numbers," Wulff said, referring to the field numerals. "[Then] we had two guys who weren't in their lanes. Heck, we didn't have anybody inside the dang hashes."

Wade Penner's missed extra point after WSU's first score was inconsequential, but it didn't assuage concerns that the Cougars haven't found a kicker. They mucked through training camp inconsistently in that area, again revisiting an old wart from the Doba days.

Wulff said the specials-teams blunders caught him by surprise. But maybe that's what gives way first, when the team is young and thin and guys like Jared Karstetter of Spokane are trying to learn to be an emergency starter at wide receiver, as well as learn the ways of kickoff coverage.

"Sometimes, he was real late getting to his spot as a receiver," Wulff said, forcing a smile. "You could see him running around, confused. I think there was a lot of water moving around in his head.

Wulff tried to extract positives from things he saw and felt in his debut.

"I was really watching the players and their body language," Wulff said. "And how they were trying to play the game. You could see they were really trying, looking you in the eye, they were encouraging [each other] — things we've been stressing, to be positive for team chemistry.

"I didn't think there was any negativity on the sideline."

Maybe the only guy who had a worse opening outing than the special teams was ESPN College GameDay's Lee Corso, who picked the Cougars to win "because the game's in Pullman."

His coverage wasn't so good, either.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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