PULLMAN — The RVs pulled into town Thursday, the customary time of arrival before a Washington State home football game.
That much hasn’t changed. But plenty in and around Martin Stadium has transformed since the Cougars last played there in November, signs of WSU’s facilities upgrades almost everywhere you turn. The Cougars (1-1, 1-0 Pacific-12 Conference) will face Southern Utah (2-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in their home opener.
The largest of the stadium’s additions — and the most obstructive as far as game days are concerned — is the construction in the stadium’s west end of a $61 million football operations building, which is scheduled to be completed about eight months from now. It began as a large hole in the ground after the demolition of the Hollingberry Annex and the removal of several dozen dump trucks worth of dirt.
It has since been shaped into a fairly impressive collection of framework, and workers are completing the foundation of the fifth (top) floor. A massive crane that required approval from the Federal Aviation Administration sits in the middle of it all and will be removed upon completion.
Fans, however, will be temporarily inconvenienced by the presence of construction this season, and not just because the removal of bleachers in the west end zone slightly reduced the stadium’s capacity to 32,740.
Because of the scope of the project, the west side of Martin Stadium is closed, meaning no access to Gate I, the gate closest to the northwest corner used by students. The new student entrance will be Gate A, and fans accessing the north side of the stadium are encouraged by WSU to enter through Gates A or B. The south side can be accessed through Gates E, F, G or H.
(The only entrance on the west side that’s even open to players and coaches during practice is a narrow pathway that leads into the seats through the southwest corner of the stadium, but it would be logistically impossible to allow fans access through that area. Cougville will still be held on the available remaining space at Rogers Field.)
Then there are the new scoreboards. The old primary board is gone, and a new one has been constructed on the east end of the stadium. Twice the size of the previous scoreboard, this one features an LED, high-definition display, and is accompanied by a pair of smaller ribbon boards beneath it.
A longer LED ribbon board has also been added to the facade of the premium seating structure on the south side of the stadium. And the sound system, which has been tested frequently throughout the week, will be a noticeable upgrade from the old one.
That much, the fans will enjoy. The team and coach Mike Leach are focused elsewhere — such as Southern Utah’s running game, and the pursuit of a 2-1 start to the season — though the Cougars say they’re happy to be back at home after two tough games at Auburn and Southern California.
“It’s very exciting, just coming back for our fans,” senior defensive tackle Ioane Gauta said. “There’s no other feeling than being a Coug. We’re excited for this home game.”
Gauta and others were impressed by the showing of 50 or so fans who gathered outside the Bohler athletic complex just before 4 a.m. Sunday to welcome the team buses back after WSU’s win over USC.
“There was a flag at the airport when we landed,” Leach said of Sunday’s arrival.
“I heard it was pretty exciting around here. They said College Hill was really roaring, and somebody a hill or two over said they could hear all the yelling on College Hill. It had to be a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Fewer than 3,000 tickets remained for Saturday’s game as of earlier this week.
SOUTHERN UTAH (2-0) AT WASHINGTON STATE (1-1)
3:30 p.m., Martin Stadium, Pullman
TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 770-AM.
The series: First meeting. SUU plays in the Big Sky Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA). WSU is 28-0 at home against current Big Sky schools and 17-0 against FCS/I-AA schools since 1978.
KEYS TO A WSU VICTORY
1. Beat ’em up: Southern Utah’s playing style is a reflection of its coach, Ed Lamb: physical, workmanlike and characterized by effort. So it’s no surprise that despite the Thunderbirds’ success throwing the ball last season, they’ve chosen a ground-oriented approach this year, rushing the ball 91 times in two victories. WSU’s defensive line already has been tested plenty in that regard, and it needs to use its size and depth advantage to impose its will from the start.
2. Score in the red zone: The easiest way to let an FCS team hang around is to finish long drives with field goals instead of touchdowns. Or with turnovers instead of scoring. The Cougars have turned the ball over in the red zone in each of their first two games, both via interceptions thrown by Connor Halliday. Executing inside the 20-yard line is a must.
3. Possess the ball: The Cougars can further exploit their depth advantage by keeping SUU’s defense on the field for long periods of time. Again, that means limiting turnovers. Consider that Halliday has turned the ball over six times and thrown just one touchdown pass. If that ratio flips, it probably means WSU wins.
4. Run a little more: WSU followed a successful rushing performance against Auburn (120 yards) with a less impressive game against USC (7 yards). A 100-plus-yard game should be attainable against the Thunderbirds, if Halliday makes the proper checks and WSU’s offensive line learns from last week’s shortcomings.Christian Caple, The Spokesman-Review