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Originally published Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:19 PM

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Steve Kelley

Cougars barely breathing just two weeks into season

By the time the Cougars discovered their running game and found some emotion, Hawaii was ahead 35-0 and this game looked like deja-Palouse all over again.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Washington State needed this win. For the sake of the season, for the sake of the future, for the sake of its coach, the Cougars needed to come to Seattle and play with the kind of fire that winning teams breathe.

They needed to turn this annual trip across the mountains to Qwest Field into a crusade. This had to be a statement game that they were proud as hell and weren't going to take another king-size shellacking.

They needed this game against Hawaii to prove something to themselves and to the 42,912 fans who were looking for something better than 2008.

But instead of breathing fire Saturday, Washington State came into this game barely breathing, and lost 38-20. For the first 30 minutes it was the same hapless team that tortured the 2008 season.

And by the time the Cougars discovered their running game and found some emotion, Hawaii was ahead 35-0 and this game looked like deja-Palouse all over again.

The Cougars allowed Hawaii quarterback Greg Alexander, the trigger of the Warriors' run-and-shoot, to stand in the shotgun and pick apart their secondary as if it were some scout team.

Alexander to Greg Salas. Alexander to Rodney Bradley. Alexander to Kealoha Pilares. It was connect-the-dots football.

For the first half, when WSU fell hopelessly behind, Alexander played pitch-and-catch with his fleet of receivers, throwing to guys so open in the yawning gaps of the Cougars' defense you would have thought they were wearing camouflage.

For 30 minutes, Washington State looked lost again. It looked as if it didn't belong on the same field with a Hawaii team that is supposed to finish in the middle of the WAC.

It was painful to watch.

Not only was Washington State bad, it was committing sports' ultimate sin: It was boring.

To their credit, these Cougars, unlike last season's Cougars, didn't quit. They didn't cave in to Hawaii after they fell hopelessly behind. They established a running game. They stitched together 13- and 15-play scoring drives.

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They found a way to slow down Hawaii's run-and-shoot, forced turnovers and scored 20 straight points.

But they lost to a middle-of-the-road WAC team. They allowed 626 yards of total offense. They played too much of the game like a team that knew it was going to lose, like a team that had gotten used to losing.

Having watched both Idaho and Washington State on a sun-drenched Saturday in Seattle, WSU looks like the second-best team in its neighborhood. Idaho played with more poise and looked more talented.

And now, at 0-2, in a season they probably will finish 1-11, Washington State is forced to ask itself the same questions Washington asked in its four frustrating years under Tyrone Willingham.

How long is too long for second-year coach Paul Wulff? How many lopsided losses are too many lopsided losses? When is patience just an excuse for postponing the inevitable? How long can this go on?

Although this is just Wulff's second season, it isn't unfair to ask if he can last after 2009. He accepted a Sisyphean task when he signed a five-year deal in 2008, but he is in danger of being crushed by the boulder he's supposed to roll.

Last season's 2-11 record was epic in its failure. The defense allowed more than 60 points four times, more than 50 points two other times and lost 31-0 to Arizona State.

In two games this season, WSU already has allowed 77 points.

Conventional wisdom says a new coach gets a full recruiting class, at least four years, to rebuild a program. But WSU under Wulff, like UW under Willingham, isn't getting better.

In the second year of the new program, the Cougars shouldn't be losing like this, to teams like Hawaii. They shouldn't be making the same mistakes, mental and physical.

Cougars fans came to Qwest Field looking for something to encourage them. They wanted to feel better about this team and about its future. They didn't get enough.

And in his second season at Washington State and his first season on the hot seat, Paul Wulff's temperature is rising.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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