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Originally published Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 10:38 PM

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Bud Withers

It's another close call to settle issue over Paul Wulff's future at WSU

Cougars are definitely playing better, but still rarely winning

Seattle Times colleges reporter

PULLMAN — In the end, the debate over Paul Wulff has settled on a parcel of ground where it's pretty much been for a long time: In uncertainty.

In the Apple Cup on Saturday, the Cougars first looked like they were going to be blown away, like 42-7. Later on, they looked like they might win it. And finally, they lost a 35-28 screamer to Washington that leaves ample ammunition for both the supporters and detractors of the third-year Washington State coach.

No, WSU didn't win, and that leaves the Cougars with just two victories in 12 tries this year. Yes, they were competitive, richly so, almost falling behind by three touchdowns, twice coming back from two touchdowns in arrears in the second half to tie it.

What the 103rd Apple Cup was, was great theater. The question now is, how much does Bill Moos, the WSU athletic director, like theater?

"In our profession," sighed WSU defensive coordinator Chris Ball, "you never know. It's part of our profession."

I asked Ball where he thought the on-field performance was trending.

"Oh yeah, as far as all that stuff, it'd be crazy to get rid of us. Recruiting is going well, the kids are playing hard, we're playing a lot of young people. It takes time. People don't want to hear that. But to do it the right way, it takes time. And in Pullman, it takes a little bit longer."

To fixate on the Wulff issue almost seems to do the game an injustice. The Cougars were awful for much of the first half, right up until the time freshman safety Deone Bucannon made a thunderous interception in the end zone — with the Huskies poised to go up 21-0 — and Jeff Tuel shepherded his team 80 yards for a touchdown.

Chris Polk ran, and Jake Locker threw and Jermaine Kearse caught, over and over, and yet WSU kept poking back at the Huskies, just like the little brother they're alleged to be. They got behind 21-7 and 28-14 and Tuel would rifle lasers to Daniel Blackledge and Marquess Wilson, and with a scant four minutes left, it was tied at 28.

To get there, the Cougars had to survive a high ankle sprain to freshman linebacker C.J. Mizell, who missed most of the game, and a foot sprain to freshman cornerback Nolan Washington, whose absence Washington took advantage of at least twice on long yardage to Kearse.

It was, though, Kearse who bested Washington on the perfectly thrown, 27-yard winning touchdown, and when you think about it, that sort of sums up where these two programs are right now — one very good player making a play against a freshman who's going to be a very good player.

"I could have been better at the line," said Washington, describing the play. "But I recovered well, I wasn't fazed. I was pushing a little bit, and he kind of got that last little push. The ball was already behind me. I couldn't really see it, and he caught it."

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So the better team won, which is what usually happens. Yet, even as the Cougars gave up half of Whitman County to Polk, here they were, knotted at 28, with the Huskies at second-and-nine on their own 14 with less than four minutes left.

"Our kids fought hard," said Wulff. "God, our kids fought, fought, fought."

It's obvious WSU has a lot of skill-position talent in place, starting with Tuel, who completed 25 of 35 for 298 yards. It's just as apparent they need to shore up both lines and be more physical at the point of attack.

"Teams make their biggest improvement from the last game to the first game," said Wulff, referring to the weight room.

Wulff thanked the fans, who made Martin Stadium a cauldron of kinetic energy on a teeth-rattling evening.

Listening to Wulff at the back of an interview room sat his extended-family members, the people who know all too well his personal story. A mother murdered, probably by his father in an unresolved case, and the death of his first wife to cancer.

Asked about the job-status issue, Wulff said evenly, "I've done it exactly the way we said we were gonna do it. We're getting a lot better. People that are inside this building would understand that.

"I feel very comfortable, but it's not my decision."

Somebody else will make it for him. Short of victory, his players did all they could for him Saturday.

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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