Wulff: Third-down stops are key this week

TIME OF POSSESSION has been an important statistic for Washington State this season. But coach Paul Wulff said during his Tuesday teleconference that might be more significant at 2 p.m. Saturday when the Cougars play at No. 12 Stanford (TV: Fox College Sports).

"If our defense has to be out there each series eight to 12 plays, it's going to wear us out," he said.

That is because Wulff said the Cardinal (5-1 overall, 2-1 conference) are the Pac-10's most physical team. If WSU cannot get stops on third down and some turnovers, the result could be similar to last year's 39-13 loss against Stanford.

"We're trying to move ourselves to be a tough, hard-nosed football team," Wulff said. "Until we learn to be physical ... we're not going to get where we want to be."

WSU (1-6, 0-4) had a nine-minute time-of-possession advantage Oct. 9 against Oregon, which is now ranked No. 1. The result was a 43-23 loss, which was much closer than the 36-point spread.

Sometimes time of possession can be a misleading statistic in a blowout when an offense frequently scores quickly. For example, the Cougars were nearly even in that category in the season opener at Oklahoma State despite losing 65-17.

But that does not figure to be the case with the Cardinal, who rank third in the conference in first downs (146) and first in third-down conversions (59.7 percent). They also lead the Pac-10 in average time of possession (32:59).

Wulff said it begins with an offensive line that features three seniors and two juniors. Stanford has allowed the second fewest sacks (21) in the conference this year.

"They've got the best offensive line in the league," he said. "Without question, it's going to be the most daunting task for our defensive line that we've seen."

Then there is sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, who leads the second most prolific scoring offense (43.3 points per game) in the Pac-10. Luck has completed 113 of 172 passes for 1,538 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions this season. He also has the second highest passing-efficiency rating (166.9) in the Pac-10 behind USC's Matt Barkley. Wulff considers Luck the conference's best quarterback.

"He's the most complete guy when it comes to throwing and running the ball," said Wulff. "He's a surefire NFL player."

Wulff said he particularly is concerned about stopping Luck on third down when he has a knack for running to keep the offense on the field.

But he said the challenge does not end with the Cardinal's offensive line or Luck. Stanford has had 16 different players score touchdowns in 2010.

"They have a couple of wideouts that are extremely gifted," Wulff said. "You can't look at any one individual."

WULFF CONTINUES TO look at several individuals on the offensive line. The scenario has not changed from Sunday when he said true freshman John Fullington, who made his first start at right tackle last week, could shift to left tackle. Senior Micah Hannam made 43 consecutive starts before missing last week's game because of a concussion, but is expected to play at Stanford.

The shifts on the offensive line are necessary because junior left tackle David Gonzales suffered a season-ending fractured forearm against the Wildcats. Junior left guard Wade Jacobson replaced him and Wulff said it is possible that he will remain at tackle. He said 6-foot-4, 258-pound Elliott Bosch, a walk-on from Ferris High School, also could be a candidate to play tackle, but Wulff feels he is better suited to play inside.

Bosch was recruited as a tight end, but moved to the offensive line during spring practice.

"He's tough, a hard worker and very smart," Wulff said. "I really think he's got a bright future. He's one of those guys that will work himself into the starting lineup in a year or two."

Even though the season is halfway complete, Wulff said he also has talked with sophomore Alex Reitnouer about playing this season. Wulff reluctantly played Reitnouer last year after the 6-5, 270-pounder initially was targeted for a redshirt. Despite starting four games a year ago, Wulff again hoped to redshirt Reitnouer.

"There's no question that he could help us at tackle," he said.

Other possibilities mentioned by Wulff on the offensive line include senior Chris Prummer and sophomore tight end Skylar Stormo. But Wulff said the latter candidate is "not ideal" to play on the line.

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Wulff was less optimistic about true freshman cornerback Damante Horton returning this season today than on Sunday. He said Horton, who suffered damage to his medial collateral and anterior-cruciate ligaments in his left knee against Arizona, has experienced swelling. He said the best-case scenario for Horton is to return during one of the Cougars' consecutive bye weeks next month and play Dec. 4 against Washington.

  • When he was hired after the 2007 season, Wulff talked about the importance of developing a strong walk-on program. He said that is beginning to occur as true freshmen Bennett Bontemps and Jack Wilson have been significant contributors on special teams in addition to sophomores Justin Mann and Kyle McCartney.

    "That's not going to change," Wulff said. "You're starting to see those guys come in and have an impact on this football team."

    He said true freshman kicker Andrew Furney also will see more place-kicking opportunities as the season progresses.

  • Stanford is the third consecutive ranked opponent that WSU plays.

    "I want to go match their intensity," Wulff said. "Can we match this kind of physicality? That's where we want to get to."


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