SALT LAKE CITY – The youthful Washington State Cougars have received so much praise for their strong performance at then-No. 19 Stanford last week, some players might be tempted to let it impact their preparation for today’s game at Utah.
Don’t expect Darryl Monroe to be one of those players.
“I’m a competitor, and I hate to lose, no matter what,” said Monroe, WSU’s middle linebacker. “Rock-paper-scissors, tic-tack-toe, a football game; a loss is a loss.”
The Cougars, one loss away from their ninth consecutive bowl-less and non-winning season (they finished 6-6 in 2006), have lost five games in a row. Utah might be the least formidable of the four teams left on Washington State’s schedule.
The Utes lost four in a row before dominating injury-riddled California last week. The Cougars are last in the North Division of the Pacific-12 Conference; the Utes are tied for last in the South with Colorado.
Utah’s offense struggled much of the season before exploding for 49 points against California. WSU’s defense is coming off a performance that outside linebacker Travis Long said was “possibly” the best in his four years with the Cougars.
Still, they lost. Again.
“We’re kind of beyond the moral victory aspect of it,” quarterback Jeff Tuel said.
“This loss just tore us apart as a defense,” Monroe said. “It killed us.
“But we know we can’t look in the past, and we can’t dwell on the past. We’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
It was somewhat surprising to see Tuel moving at all after the Stanford game. The gutsy senior was sacked 10 times and took some vicious hits, but he completed a school-record 43 of 60 passes for a career-best 401 yards.
“He’s a real solid guy, a real focused guy and a team guy and one of the tougher guys on this team,” coach Mike Leach said.
“There’s a lot of guys that have been around here for a while that just want to punch the clock. He’s not one of those guys.”
Leach, who has questioned the grit of some of his players all season, had high praise for his team’s effort and performance last week. Tuel was diplomatic when asked if the Stanford game proves the Cougars are mentally tough.
“Um, it’s tough to say, honestly,” he said. “This football team has shown a lot of toughness, and not so much at times.
“I think toughness is a matter of consistency, so just because we show it one game doesn’t mean we’re a mentally tough football team.
“But,” he added, “I think it’s going to keep growing and building if we can take teams to the wire like that and a few of them end up going our way.”
Leach and Tuel hailed Stanford’s front seven as one of the best in the country. Next up is another big, physical defense, and the Utes might have the best player and NFL prospect in the conference in defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound senior.
Utah is favored by 111/2 points. … Sunny skies and low-60’s temperatures are expected to greet a 17th consecutive sellout crowd at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium. … Leach indicated that all-time WSU receiving leader Marquess Wilson may not start for the second straight week. Wilson led WSU receivers last week and is the team’s season leader. However, Leach has been unhappy with Wilson’s inconsistency in practice and games, and he said Wilson ran the wrong route on the final play at Stanford, when Tuel was sacked. … Leading rusher and kickoff returner Teondray Caldwell and wide receiver Isiah Myers are expected to remain sidelined. Punt returner and running back Leon Brooks returned to practice. Receivers Gabe Marks and Gino Simone, injured at Stanford, also practiced.
WASHINGTON STATE (2-6 OVERALL, 0-5 PAC-12) AT UTAH (3-5, 1-4)
Noon, Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City.
TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 770-AM, 104.3-FM.
The series: Utah leads, 6-5. The Utes defeated WSU, 30-27 in overtime, last year in Pullman.
What to watch: Mike Leach finally got around to signing his five-year, $11 million contract recently – terms were announced in December – and more than a few fans think it’s high time for the highest-paid coach in WSU history to produce his first Pac-12 win. Look for the Cougars to throw the ball 50 or 60 times again. WSU usually runs the ball rarely and poorly, and Utah’s Star Lotulelei is an elite run stuffer. The Utes are 10-0 when John White rushes for 100 yards, as he did last week against California. “His best game of the season,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. Utah’s Reggie Dunn had a pair of 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns last week, but the Cougars are among the nation’s best on kickoff coverage. WSU’s blitz-happy defense is coming off its best game of the year, and the Cougars hope to pressure and confuse true freshman quarterback Travis Wilson.
The pick: Washington State, 27-24.
Has 43 tackles, 10 tackles for losses, 71/2 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 3 QB hurries.
Passed for career-high 401 yards last week in first start in 7 weeks.
Needs 54 receiving yards to crack conference’s career top 10.
Leads Cougars with 70 tackles and 4 interceptions.
Prime NFL prospect has 29 tackles; routinely get double- or triple-teamed.
Ran for career-high 186 yards last year at Washington State.
In 3 starts, 54-for-85 for 548 yards, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions.
Leads Utes with 45 tackles; set to play for Leach at Texas Tech but went on Mormon mission.Howie Stalwick, contributing writer