Wulff counts the ways Cougar D fell flat

SUGGESTING THAT WASHINGTON State missed a tackle on every play Saturday against USC is only a slight exaggeration. During his Sunday teleconference, coach Paul Wulff said the Cougars missed 32 tackles in their 50-16 conference-opening loss against the Trojans.

"The tackles that we made were arm tackles," Wulff said. "We played our poorest game on defense."

He said that defenders over-pursuing was a significant issue as USC tallied 613 yards of total offense. Safeties Deone Bucannon and Tyree Toomer each had eight tackles to lead the team, which is never a good sign since they essentially are the last line of defense.

WULFF DID NOT mince words when characterizing the linebackers' play.

"Very poor," he said.

He said the lone exception was junior outside linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who made some plays but also committed his share of mistakes. In addition to Hoffman-Ellis, senior Myron Beck and junior Mike Ledgerwood started at linebacker. Wulff offered no guarantees that the same unit would start at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at UCLA (2-2 overall, 0-1 Pac-10). He said consistency would be the biggest issue when evaluating the linebackers and who starts.

WSU (1-3, 0-1) again used a youth-laden lineup in the secondary. While senior Chima Nwachukwu started at safety, true freshman Bucannon replaced him early in the game and played extensively for a second straight week. The Cougars' other starters included sophomore Toomer at safety and sophomore Daniel Simmons and redshirt freshman Nolan Washington at cornerback.

Wulff said he expects Nwachukwu to start against UCLA because the team needs his experience in the secondary. But he likes the speed that Bucannon brings to the secondary. He said Bucannon's inexperience translated into some missed tackles and coverage errors that resulted in touchdowns.

"We have to make sure he doesn't give up the big plays too often," Wulff said.

ON OFFENSE, WSU appeared to operate out of the no-huddle more than any game in Wulff's three seasons. During Wulff's final season at Eastern Washington, when the Eagles advanced to Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals, they operated out of the no-huddle under offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy.

Wulff said the Cougars will continue to do that as they recruit their own athletes in addition to development on the offensive line, which he is beginning to see.

SIMILAR TO BUCANNON, true freshman John Fullington is seeing more time at right tackle in place of senior Micah Hannam.

"He went in there for the first time against really big-boy football," Wulff said. "He's going to be something some day."

But Fullington, who only began playing on the offensive line as a senior at North Mason High School, was cited for an illegal-procedure penalty against USC and also gave up a sack. Wulff said the sack occurred on a bull rush when Fullington lost his footing.

No matter who was playing on the offensive line, WSU had little success in its run game. The Cougars had 67 rushing yards and averaged just 2.6 yards per attempt. Wulff said improvement begins with the linemen lowering their pad level, while the running backs need to get better on zone plays.

Wulff has said in the past that he would like to feature a balanced offense, but the running woes necessitated WSU throwing on 61 percent of its play against the Trojans. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel completed 24 of 37 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw three interceptions.

THE FIRST CAME with the game tied at 7 when Tuel appeared to lock into his wide receiver. Nickell Robey read the play, intercepted the pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.

"The kid did a good job of baiting him," Wulff said.

With USC holding a 21-13 lead in the second quarter, Robey again intercepted Tuel. Wulff said Tuel overthrew the receiver, who had finished his route, on that play.

Tuel's final interception came on the following series by T.J. McDonald with the Trojans holding a 28-13 advantage. Wulff blamed that one on the intended wide receiver.

"We took too long running the route," Wulff said.

But even with those mistakes, Wulff senses his offense is becoming more productive.

"We were really close to making some bigger plays happen," he said.

AND WITH THE exception of knee bruises suffered by sophomore B.J. Guerra and senior wide receiver Jeffrey Solomon, who threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to junior Jared Karstetter to give WSU a 7-0 lead on its opening possession, Wulff said the Cougars came out of the game unscathed.

Wulff said the volume of injuries stymied WSU's progress the last two seasons and he has been happy to be relatively healthy this year.

"That's a victory for us," he said. "Our size and strength has improved enough that we aren't facing those issues anymore."

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