If you look hard, Washington State has hope

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Back in 2000, the weekly Pac-10 coaches conference call took on an amusing sameness when Washington State coach Mike Price's turn came up.

Remember that scene in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" when the teacher -- "Anyone? Anyone? ... the Great Depression, passed the ... Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill?" -- was desperate to get a student to participate in his class?

That was conference call moderator Jim Muldoon, the Pac-10's associate commissioner, trying to get reporters to ask Price a question.

Price was a good quote and one of the nicest guys in coaching, but his team was in the midst of winning just three conference in the three seasons since it had played in the 1998 Rose Bowl. His Cougs weren't terribly relevant.

"Anyone with a question for Coach Price?" Muldoon would plead.

"There are no questions in the cue," the operator would reply.

What then happened most weeks was Bob Condotta, now with the Seattle Times but then with the Tacoma News Tribune, then would hit the "*1" to ask a question. Condotta covered Washington, but he was a Washington State graduate and he felt bad for Price, he'd later explain to me.

Over the next three seasons, though, Washington State won 30 games and finished ranked in the top 10 each year. Price and then Bill Doba got a lot more questions because they were relevant.

This is a long-winded way to make a simple point: There isn't much to say about Washington State right now. The Cougars aren't good and odds are decent they won't win a game in perhaps the deepest conference in college football.

And when a program in a BCS conference is looking at the possibility of winning only three games over a two-year span, it lands that program's head coach on a perceived hot seat, no matter what circumstances he inherited. Perhaps that's why Paul Wulff gets plenty of questions on the conference call.

So it's not completely unfair to call Wulff "embattled" or whatever. The debate over Wulff's two years on the main WSU blogs -- here , here and here -- has been fairly animated, though the always positive Lew Wright has tried to keep the Coug nation bucked up.

Two points, though.

First, the Cougars have been pretty awful for stretches throughout their history. And they have always bounced back.

Second, the Cougars, despite epidemic injuries for a second consecutive year, are better and playing harder than a year ago.

Now, be forewarned that what follows won't be much consolation to Washington State fans. But it's something to think about during the bye week.

In its four Pac-10 games thus far, the Cougars have dramatically reduced their margin of defeat from last year.

Stanford beat the Cougs by 58 in 2008 but by 26 in 2009; USC won by 69 in 2008, 21 in 2009; Oregon, 49 in 2008 and 46 in 2009. A bad Arizona State team beat the Cougs by 31 last year but a decent one only eclipsed them by 13 last week.

Hey, it's tangible progress.

What's a great measure of a team just slopping around? Turnover margin. Last year, the Cougars finished ranked 119th -- last in the nation -- in turnover margin. They forced only 13 and gave away 38.

So far this year, the Cougs aren't even last in the Pac-10 (OK, they're ninth, but still). They've forced 18 and given away 20, which ranks 76th in the country, ahead of plenty of quality teams.

Of course, it's easy to find bad news. They are at or near the bottom of the Pac-10 in every major offensive and defensive statistically category.

With a makeshift O-line missing three starters, they gave 12 sacks last week at home against Arizona State.

"We're playing some guys in there right now who physically, it's tough for them," Wulff said. "They are not ready to play every down in the Pac-10."

Wulff also didn't hide from an obvious area where he, with some validity, could be criticized: Behind that overmatched line, he again started a true freshman quarterback, Jeff Tuel, whom Wulff had planned to redshirt.

Yes, Wulff, said he was concerned that his young quarterback might lose his confidence under such an assault.

“That’s the thing we have to be real careful with,” he said. “We’re trying to grow up some young guys who have got enough potential to be awfully good. But in the process of growing up, we don’t ruin or do any sort of psychological damage, and or physical damage to our players.”

When Tuel, understandably, got out of sync, Wulff sat him down for a bit and inserted former starter Marshall Lobbestael, who's only a sophomore himself. When Tuel came back in the second half, Wulff felt he played much better.

Tuel finished the day completing 11 of 22 passes for 175 yards with two picks and two TDs, one of which went for 99 yards to receiver Johnny Forzani.

The beat up offensive line might get both starting guards -- B.J. Guerra (knee) and Zach Williams (ankle) -- back for the visit to California on Oct. 24. That should help, though there are now some questions at left tackle where Tyson Pencer (ankle, illness) and Steven Ayers (ankle) have been alternating injuries.

The athletic department is cash strapped and attendance at Martin Stadium is down.

There are no significant signs that athletic director Jim Sterk is going to suddenly lose one of his good qualities -- patience -- but who knows.

These are rough times in Pullman, and they may inspire hasty, drastic measures.

But if Coug fans look close enough they might see reasons for hope.

Anyone? Anyone? Reasons for hope? Anyone?