Wulff excited about Cougs' defensive progress

WASHINGTON STATE COACH Paul Wulff updated his team's injury situation, evaluated the offense and defense, discussed some lineup changes and much more during his Sunday teleconference.

Injuries were perhaps the biggest concern for Washington State fans against a physical Stanford team.

But it appears the Cougars came out of Saturday's 38-28 loss against the Cardinal with minimal issues. WSU coach Paul Wulff said during his Sunday teleconference that redshirt freshman cornerback Nolan Washington might have sustained a slightly fractured finger at Stanford, but he expects him to play with a splint at 4 p.m. PT Saturday at Arizona State.

Washington's counterpart, sophomore Daniel Simmons, suffered a concussion against the Cardinal, but Wulff also expects him to play against the Sun Devils, who are second in the Pac-10 with an average of 281.6 passing yards per game.

"They're going to need to bounce back and play," Wulff said. "I think we'll be fine."

After facing three consecutive ranked teams with talented running backs, the Cougars' final four opponents are not currently in the Top 25. And, maybe more important, ASU does not appear to have the same talent in the backfield WSU has seen in recent weeks. The Sun Devils average just 3.9 yards per rushing attempt.

Stanford had 249 ground yards -- 5.3 yards per carry -- against the Cougars, but WSU has improved against the run in recent weeks. UCLA averaged 7.8 yards per carry in its 42-28 win on Oct. 2 against the Cougars.

True freshman C.J. Mizell started at middle linebacker Saturday, while redshirt freshman Sekope Kaufusi backed up, but still sees significant playing time. Wulff said the duo's "physical presence" has made WSU better against the run, but both still need to improve.

"They don't fit exactly where they need to fit all the time," he said. "They're not as sharp and crisp in their reads. As experience comes along with all those guys ... they'll be more consistent and attacking a lot quicker. I think there's enough physical talent there to be as good as anyone in the conference the next few years."

FITTING IN WITH that theme is true freshman Deone Bucannon. He has started three consecutive weeks at strong safety since senior Chima Nwachukwu (hamstring) was injured. Wulff said that Bucannon will remain the starter even when Nwachukwu returns.

"He's earned that right," he said. "Deone has got to be on that football field. Things happen when he's out there."

Bucannon has posted 31 tackles over the last two weeks.

On the defensive line, sophomore Anthony Laurenzi supplanted junior Brandon Rankin in the starting lineup at one tackle spot.

"He does some good things against the run," Wulff said. "He's got some good talents and instincts. It's nice to have him step up and continue good things."

That does not mean that Laurenzi will start against the Sun Devils. But Wulff said Rankin, a highly touted JC transfer, has been too inconsistent.

"Brandon's still really raw," he said. "There's some technical and fundamental things he's struggled with. He's not near where he's capable of being."

Overall, Wulff liked how the defense played. He said he particularly was impressed with how the defense responded when sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel's interception on the game's opening drive put the Cardinal at the Cougars' 7-yard line. But WSU held them to a field goal.

"There were some signs of really good things," Wulff said. "We didn't give up a lot of big plays."

ON THE OFFENSIVE side, Wulff particularly was pleased with the offensive line. After junior David Gonzales suffered a season-ending fractured forearm Oct. 16 against Oregon, Wulff started true freshman John Fullington at left tackle. It was just the second start of Fullington's career, and while Wulff said he made some technical errors, his athleticism helped him compensate.

The running game also showed improvement. WSU averages a conference-worst 81.4 rushing yards per game, but had 90 at Stanford. The Cougars also averaged 3.9 yards per carry Saturday.

"I thought we blocked better and our running backs that hit their runs did well," Wulff said.

WSU rotated through several running backs against the Cardinal, including seniors James Montgomery and Marcus Richmond, junior Logwone Mitz and sophomore Carl Winston, who had a team-high 31 yards on six carries. Montgomery finished with 29 yards on five carries, but fumbled twice. The Cougars were able to recover both of those, but not one by Mitz.

"Turning the ball over is huge," Wulff said. "It's pretty hard to play someone who is struggling to hold onto the football. We're not a good enough football team to overcome three or four turnovers."

Tuel completed 21 of 28 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns, but he also threw a pair of interceptions.

"There's clearly some mistakes he makes out there that I think clearly are because of youth," said Wulff, adding that Tuel also has shown significant development. "He's got a ways to go."

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