Cougars make progress, but lose to Stanford, 39-13
WSU does some things right, but can't match up with physical Cardinal.
Seattle Times colleges reporter
PULLMAN — Today we give you a full-service column, capable of satisfying the convictions of both every doomsayer and every optimist on football at Washington State.
The Cougars opened the 2009 season Saturday, losing to Stanford, 39-13.
• For the glass-half-full crowd, that's a darn sight better than what happened last year at Stanford, where the Cougars were dropped by the Cardinal, 58-0, in a game they trailed 44-0 early in the third quarter.
• But 39-13 is also the exact score by which WSU lost to Oklahoma State in its opener of 2008 at Qwest Field. And we probably don't need to remind you how all that turned out.
So you're free to draw your own conclusions. The Cougars opted to take positives from it.
"One hundred times better," said WSU coach Paul Wulff, asked how he felt compared to that opener of last year. "These guys have been showing it every day in practice. The players will tell you the same thing. This is a wholly different team."
If progress can be measured in WSU's inability to contain some major playmaking by Stanford, then the Cougars have made strides. They allowed a 63-yard touchdown on a poorly defended hitch pattern by Chris Owusu, an 85-yard kickoff return for a score by Owusu, and on a fourth-and-3 thrust, a finishing 39-yard touchdown run by Toby Gerhart.
So they lamented big plays. Last year, they lamented big scores.
"They out-executed us today," said Gino Simone, the freshman flanker from Skyline High. "But we were in that game. The way we played was not as bad as [the score] looked."
WSU allowed Stanford a game-opening drive and then on the extra point, in a spasm of cluelessness, had 12 men on the field. The Cardinal accepted, moved the ball half the distance and Gerhart ran it over for an 8-0 lead. Another 50, and Stanford would match 2008.
But the Cougars showed some spunk, plowing for five straight first downs, running off 19 straight plays, most of them runs by Dwight Tardy and James Montgomery. Then they morphed into last year's team, driving to the Stanford 1 with a first down before eventually missing a field goal.
"Our offensive line is only going to grow and get a lot better," insisted Wulff. "I think people will be aware, our offensive line is going to have a chance to be pretty darn good."
At least WSU had plays to rehash, miscues to second-guess. Plays like a dropped interception by linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, after which Stanford continued to drive for a touchdown.
A year ago, WSU second-guessed attitudes.
"Last year at Stanford, it was raining, we hung our heads," said quarterback Kevin Lopina, who seemed to solidify his starting job with a 10-for-16, 122-yard day. "Today, I felt when they made a big play, we rallied."
A funny thing happened. With a slim crowd of 22,386 on hand, WSU fell behind 22-3 at half. Emotion seemed at a low ebb in the stands and even on the field.
Then WSU hung around through most of the second half, drawing within 22-10. The crowd seemed to pick it up and so did the Cougars. Eric Block, the ex-Bellevue High quarterback playing safety here, crunched Owusu on a would-be first-down catch that got people excited.
Louis Bland and Xavier Hicks stoned Gerhart in the backfield for losses. All three of WSU's tackles for loss against the Cardinal came in the second half. Until Gerhart's clinching touchdown run with five minutes left, he had only 20 second-half yards.
It was as though everybody decided — on the turf and in the bleachers — that it was OK to buy in, to invest something.
For his part, Wulff says it is.
"I was pretty proud of how they did perform," he said. "The nice thing is, we can get a lot better."
We won't depart from the theme: They'll probably have to get a lot better.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281
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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.
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