Wulff needs Cougs to take next step

Progress for Washington State? How about this: The Cougars played a competitive game at UCLA into the fourth quarter last Saturday. The week before, Texas did not do the same in its own building.

Of course, the problem for Paul Wulff and the Cougars is descriptions of success require words. Often a lot that are carefully arranged. Most fans only want numbers and a letter: What's the score and did we get the "W"?

"I know everyone looks at winning only," Wulff said. "And I do think that's very important. But we've got to take steps."

The performance at UCLA was a step forward: It was the first time the Cougars had held a second-half lead against a Pac-10 team in two-plus seasons under Wulff. (The Cougars lone conference win in 20 tries came in 2008 in overtime against Washington, which finished 0-12).

Yet as the Cougars prepare to face a brutal stretch against highly ranked teams -- Oregon (on Saturday), Arizona, at Stanford -- it's not likely that many of those games will be competitive into the fourth quarter. If they are, then we will be witnessing a program turnaround. But a few more blowout losses might damage this young team's confidence, which could make things no less difficult even when the schedule softens up a little bit.

Is there a W ahead for the Cougars? It's hard to point to a game in which they will not be significant underdogs. And if there are no more wins than the one over Montana State, an FCS program, can Wulff survive into a fourth season with a 1-26 mark in Pac-10 play?

While Wulff is aware of and not unsympathetic to fan frustration, he believes he has support -- and understanding -- in the right places, starting with new Washington State athletic director Bill Moos.

"Bill Moos understands," Wulff said. "He's built football programs in the past. He understands there's a process to it and you got to understand where you begin. Are you improving from where you began? I know we've improved tremendously from where this started."

Signs of progress: The Cougars offense is now respectable, averaging 21 points and 339 yards per game. Last year, it averaged 12 points and 249 yards (both totals ranked 119th in the nation). Sophomore QB Jeff Tuel is sixth in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency. Promising true freshman receiver Marquess Wilson is third in the conference with 91.6 yards receiving per game.

On the downside: The defense, thought in the preseason to likely show significant improvement, is giving up huge numbers and ranks among the nation's worst in nearly every major statistical category.

The Cougs lost 11 games by an average of 29 points last year. They've lost four by an average of 27.8 points so far in 2010. Under Wulff, the Cougars have four total wins -- two against FBS teams -- and have not posted a final score in which their losing margin was less than 13 points.

The Cougars are playing a lot of young players, but 17 of the starting position players listed on their most recent depth chart are juniors or seniors (that's out of 23).

"We've come a long, long ways," Wulff said. "I know people are trying to put measuring sticks on wins and losses. I understand that. But we cannot get from A to Z by jumping over all the other letters. We've got to take our steps."

Moos and Wulff have a solid relationship, but those steps need to come faster to satisfy a fan base that has turned from frustrated to apathetic, see thousands of empty seats for USC's visit on Sept. 25.

The Cougars, however, are still playing hard for Wulff. After blowout losses to Oklahoma State and USC, they played competitively into the second half against SMU and UCLA. That's not a lot, but it's something. Only it must also lead to something else. And soon. Otherwise, speculation about Wulff's hot seat will only get hotter.

"That's part of the process of growing a team, in building a program," Wulff said. "You got yourself in certain situations, and we finally did that [against UCLA], in terms of being in the game in the fourth quarter. Now the next step is how you respond in those situations."