Cougars no longer are 2,000-word favorites

WASHINGTON STATE COACH Paul Wulff discussed a variety of topics heading into Saturday's Apple Cup, including his position on trash talking before the game, his job status, the prospect of snow and much more.

Legendary Washington coach Don James declared that he was a 2,000-word underdog to Washington State counterpart Jim Walden before the 1985 Apple Cup.

No such proclamations are necessary this year.

WSU coach Paul Wulff said during his Tuesday teleconference that he spoke with his players about talking trash this week as the Cougars (2-9 overall, 1-7 Pac-10) prepare for their regular-season finale at 4 p.m. Saturday against Washington at Martin Stadium (TV: Versus).

"We don't want to give them bulletin-board material," Wulff said. "That never does any good."

He then reiterated what athletic director Bill Moos told him.

"We don't want to have a battleship mouth and a rowboat body," Wulff said. "We can't allow them to say whatever they want."

Wulff then was reminded that he said, "Dogs hunt and bark, but Cougars fight and kill," during his inaugural news conference after being hired as WSU's coach following the 2007 season.

"That must have been Mike Price," Wulff quipped.

Price, who coached the Cougars from 1989-2002, frequently told a story about Wulff returning from an appendectomy shortly before the '89 Apple Cup. Wulff said Price frequently changed the story from his center taking weeks to hours to recover from the operation. Wulff missed about two and a half weeks, but only one game because of a bye.

"It was worth it," Wulff said.

PERHAPS AT LEAST as painful has been WSU's struggles on the gridiron in recent years as it has compiled a 5-31 record in Wulff's three seasons. Yahoo! Sports' Tom Dienhart tweeted Sunday that he was "told to expect Washington State to open. In fact, I was told the school has been ‘calling around' for several weeks." ESPN's Joe Schad also reported Tuesday that Wulff was "very likely" to be fired after the Apple Cup.

Wulff said during Tuesday's Pac-10 teleconference that his conversations with the athletic director are normal.

"It's the same thing," he said of talking with Moos. "We talk about building a program. We talk about what we've got to do to move forward. There's no hidden agendas or anything like that. I think this is a bowl-quality team next year."

Wulff then was asked whether he expected to coach the Cougars next season.

"I just feel we've made tremendous progress from an academic and recruiting side," he said.

Wulff said handling the criticism has been easier for him because he has dealt with plenty of adversity in his life. His mother disappeared in 1979 — his father was suspected of murdering her — and his first wife, Tammy, died after a five-year battle with brain cancer in 2002.

He also mentioned former WSU men's basketball coach Dick Bennett, who posted just a 18-36 conference record in three seasons while rebuilding the program, and then turned it over to his son, Tony, who led the Cougars to consecutive NCAA Tournaments in 2007-08.

"Dick Bennett came into my office and told me you're going to take shots until you get it back on solid ground," Wulff said. "It was a great lesson learned from a man who has done it all."

He sees a similar turnaround occurring in his program.

"We have a wonderful young football team here — a team that is very capable of going onto a bowl next year," Wulff said.

AS FAR AS the Apple Cup is concerned, Wulff said there has been little focus on snow or bowl prospects for the Huskies (5-6, 4-4), who must win to qualify for postseason play for the first time since 2002. Wulff said feeding players with too much information can "cloud" them. He simply wants to focus on the game plan.

That goes for coaches, as well. Wulff acknowledged that WSU, which has had two consecutive bye weeks, watched more game tape on UW than usual.

"There's a fine line between understanding what you want to do and doing too much," he said. "I don't know if an extra week or two of film watching makes you any better."

Perhaps Wulff's greatest issue is how his team responds from the byes.

"The concern coming out of a bye is being sharp and executing," he said. "That's our challenge."

Wulff was not dismissive of the prospect of snow, saying that it adds excitement because it is rare for Apple Cups, but he said FieldTurf has made traction far less of an issue than it was during 1992. That was the last time there was significant snowfall during the Apple Cup as WSU upset the Rose Bowl-bound Huskies 42-23.

"Unless something is caked with ice, the footing is so good it's not an issue," Wulff said.

HE SAID THERE are far more significant concerns. Wulff believes UW senior quarterback Jake Locker is healthier since suffering a cracked rib Oct. 30 against Stanford.

"I think they're doing more play-action and bootlegs than they've done with Jake," he said. "There may be a little more designed runs with Jake now. He throws the ball on the run pretty darn accurately."

In addition to Locker's scrambling ability, the Huskies feature sophomore running back Chris Polk (954 rushing yards) and freshman Jesse Callier (417).

"Polk and Callier are outstanding," Wulff said.

After being one of the most porous defenses in the Pac-10 throughout the season, UW has limited its last two opponents, UCLA and California, to 20 points combined. Some have suggested that those results are a product of poor quarterback play, but Wulff believes the Huskies' defense has improved. He said the linebacking corps of seniors Victor Aiyewa and Mason Foster and junior Cort Dennison particularly are strong in addition to senior safety Nate Williams.

"The biggest thing is their ability to control the running game better than they have all year," Wulff said.

NOTABLE NOTES:

  • True freshman cornerback Damante Horton has returned to practice, but Wulff said he is unlikely to play against UW. Horton has not played since he suffered damage to the medial collateral and anterior-cruciate ligaments in his left knee Oct. 16 against Arizona.

  • Wulff was asked if he was "the big man on campus" after earning a 31-14 win Nov. 13 at Oregon State. The victory ended a 16-game conference losing streak for WSU.

    "I'm 250-plus pounds," Wulff laughed. "I'm big no matter what."

  • Wulff said the growth of the Internet has changed the Apple Cup since he played.

    "It seems to be a greater magnitude and more widespread than it used to," he said.


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