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Originally published September 25, 2010 at 6:40 PM | Page modified September 26, 2010 at 5:14 PM

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Bud Withers

So close, yet so far behind

Washington State plays well for one quarter, but that's not enough

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Bad numbers

12

The Cougs lost their 12th consecutive game to an FBS opponent.

193-36

Combined score from the past three meetings between USC and WSU. USC has won eight in a row against the Cougs.

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PULLMAN — So these are your Washington State Cougars: convincing the program's skeptics of their progress, one quarter at a time.

Four quarters continue to be out of the question, which WSU proved again on a toasty Saturday afternoon on the Palouse, getting KO'ed 50-16 by Southern California in the Pac-10 opener for both teams.

"We talked about it on the sidelines, even when things were down," said Jeffrey Solomon, WSU's receiver from Ingraham High. "We're so close to being good, it's not even funny."

But "close" and 50-16 aren't exactly synonyms, which is why the season is devolving into a referendum on the development of the program under Paul Wulff.

Early, WSU played with an invigorating freshness, scoring a touchdown on its opening drive for the first time in more than two years, doing it with a receiver pass from Solomon to Jared Karstetter. Then the Cougars attempted a pooch kickoff that backfired, but at least it represented enterprise.

WSU came out in a simulated "Pistol" formation, the back behind the shotgun quarterback, and Jeff Tuel engineered a productive first-half passing game built on screens and slants.

"The offense is starting to believe in ourselves, and what we can do," Solomon said. "We're not playing not to make mistakes, but to make plays."

The Cougars produced 230 first-half yards. But when USC shut them down in the second half, and the WSU defense couldn't make the Trojans punt — not once — the notion of a major upset came crashing down.

"I just told our players, 'No one in here better be happy,' and they're not," Wulff said. "It makes me mad. I'm tired of it."

Two positions tell you what you need to know about WSU. Micah Hannam got his 41st consecutive start at right tackle, and he's being pushed by a freshman from Belfair, John Fullington. Chima Nwachukwu started at safety for the 37th time, but taking over after the first series was freshman Deone Bucannon.

"He runs well and hits well," Wulff said of Bucannon. "For a guy who just turned 18 Aug. 30, he's a good player."

So Wulff is gradually entrusting his livelihood to a lot of guys who can't buy a beer for another three years.

Say this about Wulff: The next break he gets will be his first one. You know already about the scant cupboard he inherited. Two years ago, WSU loses two quarterbacks for extended periods — playing Portland State.

Last year, the Cougars were the most injury-depleted team in the nation. This year, they've already lost five players for the season, including tailback Ricky Galvin on the first play of his college career five minutes into the opener.

There are the hits behind the scenes: WSU had a commitment from a promising defensive tackle from Snow Junior College, Al Lapuaho, thinking he could eventually do for the Cougars what Stephen Paea does at Oregon State. But the NCAA Clearinghouse was slow to act on Lapuaho, so instead of enrolling, he returned to Snow, where the recruiting interest is liable to grow.

The truck accident that left Cory Mackay paralyzed is a tragedy beyond the scope of football. When it happened 16 months ago, it left the Cougars without a promising defensive end who likely would be starting.

WSU's continuing problems with tackling are no doubt galling to Louis Bland. The undersized linebacker was a starter from Wulff's first recruiting class who missed half of last season with a knee injury and is redshirting this season while continuing rehab.

With the roster churning toward youth, the Cougars have sometimes seemed too cautious, too rote, too void of fire.

Once Saturday, on an obvious pass-interference call that wasn't made in front of the WSU bench, Wulff appeared not to be demonstrative with the official who blew the call, though he disputed that, saying he "was jumping up and down."

It's logical, as Wulff says, that he and his staff haven't force-fed the offense too much. But Saturday, the Cougars ran more no-huddle offense, and they were aggressive and innovative, at least until the talent gap caved them in.

"We're so youthful; I don't know if people understand that," Wulff said. "These first few games, you've got to kind of groom these guys a little bit. You throw them into a fire, and sometimes you can really shake their confidence."

Well, this would be a good time for the Cougars to leave grooming to the hair stylists. They've got two-thirds of the season left, eight games to make a statement about where they and Wulff are going. As they say on the golf course, tee it high and let it fly.

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

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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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