Everyone remembers the 1997 game at Husky Stadium where Washington State's 41-35 victory propelled the Cougars to their first Rose Bowl in 67 years. But WSU has been the spoiler at least as often — perhaps most notably in 1982 when the Cougars, who entered the game with a 2-7-1 record, denied the Huskies their third consecutive trip to Pasadena with a 24-20 win at Martin Stadium.
WSU (2-9 overall, 1-7 Pac-10) could play that role again at 4 p.m. Saturday (TV: Versus). UW (5-6, 4-4) must win to advance to its first bowl game since 2002.
But Wulff said during his Thursday teleconference that playing the spoiler has not been a focus for his team. Rather, it's all about the Cougs and their improvement, which Wulff feels has been steady this season, rather than ruining the Huskies' postseason hopes.
In any event, Wulff knows the Cougars must contain UW's running game. WSU accomplished that in a 31-14 win Nov. 13 against Oregon State when it held star running back Jacquizz Rodgers to 93 yards on the ground, while the Beavers averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. But the Cougars have allowed 211.6 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks 115th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Wulff said the Huskies present a different challenge than OSU because they have multiple backfield threats in running backs Chris Polk and Jesse Callier in addition to quarterback Jake Locker.
"Polk is different," said Wulff, adding that his team must put UW into third-down passing situations. "He's so strong that he carries guys for extra yards."
WULFF AND HIS staff shifted personnel in early October to improve WSU's speed on defense. Redshirt freshman Sekope Kaufusi was moved from defensive end to linebacker, while true freshman C.J. Mizell emerged as the starter at middle linebacker, and each move could play a large role on Saturday.
Kaufusi suffered a shoulder injury Oct. 30 at Arizona State and did not play the next week against California. He also saw limited time versus the Beavers. But Wulff said the two consecutive bye weeks were beneficial to Kaufusi.
"He's a guy who has not been a factor for us in awhile (due to injury)," he said. "He should been able to play and play well (Saturday)."
Wulff likes the physical presence Kaufusi and Mizell provide. The latter generated some controversy when he hit and drove Rodgers far out of bounds and drew a 15-yard personal-foul penalty.
"He may not have realized where the sideline was, I guess," Wulff said. "I think the momentum carried them both back. I didn't think that necessarily was intentional. He was amped up and fired up."
Some credited Mizell's late hit for establishing a physical tone for WSU. Wulff said he does not want to stifle that.
"I'm not worried about it as long as he brings his intensity," he said. "As long as it isn't cheap and intentionally dirty then I'm fine with it."
Wulff said physicality will be particularly important because Polk has a punishing rushing style.
"You've got to tackle very well," he said. "They don't go down easily."
WHEN HE ACCEPTED the job to become the Cougars' coach after the 2007 season, Wulff often talked about the importance of the quarterback position. Some of his greatest successes at Eastern Washington occurred when 2005 Walter Payton Award recipient Erik Meyer and Matt Nichols, who guided the Eagles to the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals in Wulff's final season, were the signal-callers.
After watching players such as Marshall Lobbestael, Kevin Lopina and Gary Rogers take turns at the position during his first two seasons, Wulff feels he finally has a quarterback to build around with sophomore Jeff Tuel.
"We feel he's definitely that guy," Wulff said. "He's improved quite a bit with his comfort level and experience."
Wulff mentioned that his team returns several wide receivers next season and the passing game, which ranks 48th nationally with an average of 233.8 yards per game, should only improve next season with Tuel and others back. Plus, the Cougars have QB Connor Halliday, who Wulff and coaches have raved about, redshirting this year.
In addition to his passing, Tuel showed his dual-threat ability with a team-high 79 rushing yards at OSU. Wulff said that could continue against the Huskies.
"A lot of it is going to be if it's presented to him," he said. "I'm sure they will have the ability to spy him. I feel Jeff is really learning ... to take what is given to him."
"There will be some natural nerves involved," he said. "I think it's very critical that we relax and have fun in this game."
"Some other players have stepped up and played well while he was out," Wulff said. "As we recruit and upgrade our players, sometimes that happens."