Is Montana State a classic trap game?

THESE GAMES, like the one Washington State faces Saturday against Montana State, were once viewed as little more than easy wins to enhance a program's ability to become bowl eligible. But that was before Football Championship Subdivision teams began defeating Football Bowl Subdivision programs at least once a season.

In 2006, Colorado lost 19-10 to Montana State. One year later, Appalachian State shocked No. 5 rated Michigan. And during the opening week of this season, Kansas lost against North Dakota State, while Mississippi suffered a double-overtime setback to Jacksonville State.

Given those results and his own 3-23 record as Washington State's coach, Paul Wulff said during Tuesday's teleconference that his team is not underestimating Big Sky opponent Montana State. The teams play at 4 p.m. Saturday at Martin Stadium.

"We're definitely not in a position to get caught up in who we are playing," Wulff said. "We're just trying to elevate our team's performance. Who we are playing at this point is irrelevant. It's just about what we've got to do to improve as a football team."

The Cougars lost their season opener 65-17 last week at Oklahoma State, while the Bobcats beat Fort Lewis, a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference school, 59-10. MSU opened against an FBS team last year, Michigan State, and lost 44-3.

WSU WON ITS last meeting against a Big Sky school 48-9 on Sept. 20, 2008, versus Portland State. Wulff, who compiled a 53-40 record in eight years at Eastern Washington, said he won't view MSU differently than any other team on the schedule.

With the exception of the quarterback position, where Denarius McGhee became the first freshman to start for Montana State since Rob Stoltz in 1987, the Bobcats have experience on both sides of the ball. Wulff noted that MSU features six senior defensive starters. More importantly, he said the Bobcats do not make mistakes to beat themselves.

That was a familiar refrain during the teleconference. Wulff cited Boise State's 33-30 win Monday against Virginia Tech as an example. The Broncos took a 17-0 lead on their first three possessions, which all came from mistakes by the Hokies. There was a fumble on the second play of the game, a blocked punt and a personal foul on fourth-and-one that extended BSU's third drive.

While Wulff stopped short of saying the Cougars could have beat the Cowboys he felt the outcome should have been much closer. He cited costly penalties and turnovers.

"We made too many mistakes," Wulff said. "We handed over 35 points easily. The encouraging thing is these are things we can fix."

WULFF AGAIN FORCEFULLY reiterated that this year's team is noticeably better than the last two seasons. As an example, Wulff cited the number of explosive plays, which he defines as a pass that results in 16 yards or more or a run that produces 12 hashes or better.During the last two seasons, Wulff said WSU never produced more than four explosive plays in one game.

There were eight against the Cowboys.

Wulff specifically mentioned the receiving game when talking about the talent upgrade. He expects junior Jared Karstetter (concussion) and sophomore Gino Simone (hamstring) to return this week. Those two will pair with true freshman Marquess Wilson, who had a team-high 108 yards and a touchdown on four receptions, and junior-college transfer Isiah Barton, who had 69 yards on four catches.

"We're finally building some competition," Wulff said. "I think our passing game has something special brewing this season."

He is hopeful that another true freshman, Kristoff Williams (turf toe), will join the receiving rotation but Wulff said Williams will not be available this week, and could even end up redshirting if he is not healed up and ready to play soon. He said there is no timetable for making a decision on Williams redshirting at this point.

"I know with him and Marquess Wilson that we'll have two of the finer young receivers we've had around here in a long time," Wulff said. "We sure would like to get him on the field because he surely would make a difference."

COMPETITION ALSO IS a buzzword on the offensive line. Wulff said he does not anticipate any changes to the starting lineup this week, but he added that true freshman right tackle John Fullington, sophomore left tackle Tyson Pencer and junior left guard Andrew Roxas all are pushing for playing time. Pencer, who has dealt with an assortment of injuries, was not active against OSU.

At fullback, sophomore Jared Byers tore the medial-collateral ligament in his left knee and Wulff said he will require surgery. He said the news is much better than it could have been because Byers nearly suffered a dislocated knee when a helmet hit it against the Cowboys. If that had occurred, Wulff said the injury likely would have ended Byers' career. Instead, Wulff said he is "pretty sure" there was no damage to the anterior-cruciate ligament and Byers should be able to participate in spring practices.

Wulff said seniors Marcus Richmond and Chantz Staden and sophomore Andrei Lintz all could see time at fullback.

ON THE DEFENSIVE side, Wulff said true freshman Kalafitoni Pole's situation is similar to Williams'. Pole suffered a shin injury during fall camp, but progressed to the point where he was able to return to practice. He was fitted with a protective guard, but Wulff said Pole was hit in the same place during practice and is out indefinitely. A redshirt is possible if he is not able to return shortly.

"He had that big swelling in his shin," Wulff said. "It hit his blood vessel. He's still struggling with pain and a lot of swelling."

Regardless of who is playing on the line, Wulff said his staff must continue to work with them on shedding blockers. Sophomore Travis Long was the only lineman who produced a tackle-for-loss, which came on a sack.

The Cougars' linebacking play also was spotty at times, said Wulff. True freshman C.J. Mizell had five tackles while playing just 14 snaps, and if he practices well this week, Wulff anticipates him playing more against the Bobcats.

"I think he has taken some steps the last few days," he said.

WULFF SAID HE mostly was pleased with the play of his safeties. Senior Chima Nwachukwu had six tackles, while sophomore Tyree Toomer had a team-high eight. Wulff said Toomer, who missed last season with a pectoral injury, made some mistakes that he attributed to playing in a game for the first time since 2008.

While Toomer has played in the past, Wulff said 22 of his players saw their first collegiate action against OSU.

"There's a lot of good things you can build off of," he said. "To play in that environment in your first college game, there's a lot we can learn there."

NOTABLE NOTES:

  • Wulff said offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy likely will use the no-huddle offense at times this year, but with little experience at wide receiver and sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel, he said it does not make a lot of sense to use it right now.

  • Former WSU offensive lineman Jason McEndoo has coached that unit for eight seasons at MSU. Wulff reportedly considered McEndoo to join his initial staff in 2008 at WSU, but instead hired Harold Etheridge. Steve Morton replaced Etheridge during the offseason, but Wulff said he respects McEndoo, who helped the Cougars win the Pac-10 in 1997.

    "He's definitely somebody we always would consider at that position," he said. "I think Jason has a bright future as a football coach."

  • Wulff reiterated that junior linebacker Louis Bland (knee) and sophomore safety Jay Matthews (shoulder) are unlikely to play this season. Wulff said both might potentially be ready to play at the midpoint of the season, but without practice time that it might be detrimental to use them for half a season. Bland still has a redshirt season available, while Matthews likely would be eligible to appeal for a sixth season of eligibility because injuries have cost him two years.


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