2-0 for Huskies, Cougars sure beats 2-23 from ’08

September 12, 2011 

Those third-and-long situations are still bewildering the Huskies’ defense, and rolling up a combined 123 points on the outclassed likes of Idaho State and UNLV should not be seen as evidence of a revival in Pullman.

Not yet, anyway.

But Washington is 2-0, and Washington State is 2-0, and while the teams have not yet developed into much of a presence on the national scene, remember that the Huskies and Cougars finished with an aggregate record of 2-23 only three years ago.

Is it too early to envision a bowl bid at stake when the rivals meet at CenturyLink Field for the Apple Cup? Of course it’s too early.

Heck, I’m still trying to grasp the idea of the Apple Cup at CenturyLink Field. The thought of an unusually pertinent story line on Nov. 26 requires more imagination than I’m prepared to use on Sept. 12.

Still, Washington’s two major-college schools are undefeated, which is more than can be said for such states as Oregon, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania.

Not since 2001 have the Huskies and Cougars broken out of the gate 2-0, and they did that only because Washington’s road game at Miami was rescheduled as a regular-season finale because of the terrorist attacks. The Huskies were clobbered, 65-7, so it’s fair to assume they would’ve lost in Week 2.

You might (or might not) recall how UW and WSU qualified for bowl games after their 2-0 starts in 2001. The Huskies made it to the Holiday Bowl, where they dropped a 47-43 thriller to Texas. The Cougars beat Purdue in the Sun Bowl, 33-27.

By today’s standards, 2001 was a very good year for football in the state of Washington: the Huskies finished 8-4, the Cougars 10-2.

Little did we know that 2002 would turn out to be the last hurrah for both Rick Neuheisel at Washington and Mike Price at Washington State.

Little did we know the programs were on the verge of a simultaneous free fall that rendered most of the remainder of the decade a bad memory. Rebuilding has been achieved in tangible increments at Washington, where Steve Sarkisian inherited a 2008 team that had gone 0-12 under Tyrone Willingham and turned it into a 2010 Holiday Bowl victor.

The rebuilding process is more gradual at Washington State, where Paul Wulff’s 5-32 record heading into 2011 turned this season into a make-or-break campaign for the Cougars coach.

This is why their 2-0 start can’t be overemphasized. A year ago this weekend, the Cougs – in the throes of an 11-game losing streak – needed a late field goal to beat Montana State, 23-22. Against UNLV on Saturday, WSU scored touchdowns on its first five possessions.

“They looked like a competitive Pac-12 team,” Rebels coach Bobby Hauck said of the Cougars.

Hauck wasn’t trying to flatter an opponent that had just cleaned UNLV’s clock, but his pronunciation of the words “competitive” and “Pac-12” in the same breath was a revealing endorsement of Wulff’s work.

A week after sustaining the ultimate sucker punch – a broken clavicle that put talented quarterback Jeff Tuell on the sideline indefinitely – WSU showcased the benefits of Wulff’s big-picture blueprint: Build up depth through improved recruiting, but honor the experience of the guys who’ve bought in.

With Tuell out, fifth-year senior Marshall Lobbestael has made a seamless transition from backup to starter. During his first three years at Washington State, Lobbestael threw seven touchdown passes.

He’s thrown seven more in two games this season.

Asked to describe the sound of a 2-0 record, Lobbestael replied: “It sounds great. But 3-0 sounds better, though.”

It’s a tall order – the Cougars must travel to San Diego State, which finished 9-4 in 2010 and won the Poinsettia Bowl against Navy – but it’s not insurmountable.

San Diego State surrendered 446 yards to Army last Saturday, and though the Aztecs won on the road, 23-20, a team capable of giving up 446 yards to Army is a team capable of losing to a competitive Pac-12 team.

As for the Huskies? They’re also facing a tall order – at Nebraska, where the Cornhuskers will be bent on avenging last season’s Holiday Bowl debacle – but, again, the tall order is hardly insurmountable.

Nebraska’s 42-29 defeat of Fresno State over the weekend was not resounding: The Bulldogs owned a 20-14 lead midway through the third quarter, and controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes.

As strange as it sounds, Washington has reasons to anticipate the trip to Lincoln with eagerness. The Huskies will be underdogs – a welcome challenge for a team that has struggled to assert itself over such beatable opponents as Eastern Washington and Hawaii – and the pass-poor defense won’t be fearing a quarterback who throws 60 or 70 times.

Nebraska has three first-year starters on the offensive line.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez is a gifted runner, a bit of a project as a passer. There’s some matchup possibilities UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt ought to be savoring.

In any case, we’ve got a few days to revel in the reality that the Huskies are 2-0, and the Cougars are 2-0. We’ve got a few days to ponder the wisdom of WSU quarterback/philosopher Marshall Lobbestael.

A 2-0 record sounds great, but a 3-0 record? It sounds even better.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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