PULLMAN - At the midpoint of the Washington State football season, it's clear the Cougars are a better team than last year.
But injuries have taken a terrific toll, and the result is the offense is struggling to score. The Cougars (1-5, 0-4 Pacific-10 Conference) have a bye this week, which coach Paul Wulff hopes will allow at least a few of his fallen starters to get healthy.
“We’ll get some veteran players back, particularly on the offensive line, in the next two weeks,” Wulff said. “That will make a big, big difference in our production on offense.”
All teams suffer injuries as the season progresses. But the Cougars seem cursed to the point of the ridiculous.
Virtually the entire starting offensive line has been sidelined this season. That was a big reason Arizona State was able to sack WSU quarterbacks 12 times in Saturday’s 27-14 win.
The bye this week means that starting linemen Zack Williams, Steven Ayers and B.J. Guerra have a chance to return in time to play at California on Oct. 24.
“If we could get two of those guys back, or all three, it would be just huge,” Wulff said.
Center Kenny Alfred, one of the offensive line’s most durable players, suffered a cut on his leg late in the ASU game and will need some time to recover. Lineman Brian Danaher, who was rushed back into action against ASU after suffering a concussion the previous week, suffered another concussion Saturday and will likely be out for a while.
The Cougars previously lost leading rusher James Montgomery for the season to a leg injury. He’s one of eight key players who are out for the season.
“We’re always plugging someone in there,” Wulff said.
All told, the Cougars so far have had 17 players make the first starts of their careers, nine of those freshmen.
Saturday, the Cougars started five freshmen on offense against ASU. That included quarterback Jeff Tuel, the first true freshman to start at the position for WSU since Drew Bledsoe in 1990. Tuel has performed surprisingly well, despite a lack of protection.
“You can’t expect to sit back there and have all day to throw,” Tuel said.
But Wulff said there is only so much a quarterback can do without protection.
“It doesn’t matter what quarterback is out there,” Wulff said. “If he’s going to get hit all the time, you don’t have a chance.”
It’s little surprise that WSU has one of the nation’s poorest performing offenses. They are rushing for only 75 yards per game, an average of 2.3 yards per carry, with total offense of 269 yards per game to 489 for opponents. Through six games, they are being outscored by an average of 35-14. Still, that’s an improvement over last year’s average of 43-12.
Their only win was in overtime against SMU in the season’s third game.
Even with the defense producing three interceptions and three fumble recoveries against Arizona State last weekend, the offense was able to convert only one turnover into points.
“We have to step up as an offense,” said receiver Johnny Forzani, who caught a 99-yard touchdown pass from Tuel against ASU.
The defense also suffered a blow Saturday when starting defensive back Daniel Simmons suffered a broken leg in the game.
The defensive line that started against ASU included two redshirt freshmen, a true freshman and a transfer from Division II Western Washington.
“The bye week comes at a perfect time for everybody on the team,” said linebacker Andy Mattingly.
The results have not all been grim. The Cougars have 18 takeaways on defense this season, more than last year’s total.
They have forced 12 fumbles, doubling last year’s total.
Despite the woes, the only game they have been totally routed was a 52-6 loss at Oregon.
Although the Cougars have already played the top three teams in the Pac-10, the remaining schedule doesn’t offer a lot of relief. They still have to play Notre Dame (4-1) on a neutral field. Otherwise Washington (3-3) is their only remaining opponent without a winning record. They also play Cal, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State.
“We’ve got to regroup and make a turnaround,” safety Xavier Hicks said.
By the numbers
Some numbers for Washington State’s football team this season: Average margin of defeat for five losses Points WSU has been outscored in the first quarter Points WSU has been outscored in the second quarter