Looking ahead to a big one in WSU-OSU

THE SECOND HALF of Washington State's 2011 season starts Saturday with a game against Oregon State in Seattle. Is it also something more than that?

I really hate the media game of fire the coach. It's often played by the gutter-snipers who think all of a program's problems are solved by sacking the coach. But many fans and college administrators love to play along, too. It's the world we live in.

So, what happens during the second half of this season will determine whether Paul Wulff continues his Washington State employment into 2012.

Frankly, Wulff deserves to see this team through next year. He has built a solid foundation at a place that was woefully bereft and barren of talent when he arrived. Whoever coaches the Cougars in 2012 is going to have a winner, barring substantial injuries. Even a Husky can see that.

But, it would be hard for athletic director Bill Moos to face his boosters and say Wulff is the man if the Cougars go 0-6 or 1-5 during the second half of the season. Even two wins, which places WSU at 5-7 for the season, would be a difficult sell.

As much as I think Wulff deserves to be back next season, he probably needs to show two things during the second half of the season. One, the Cougars should win the games they're supposed to win. And two, put up a competitive fight in the rest.

And it wouldn't hurt Wulff if the Cougars won a game that is unexpected. Anyone thinking Apple Cup here? Beating a Washington team that has been on the move should lead to a lot of job security.

SO WHAT ABOUT Oregon State?

It sure smells like a critical game. The Beavers are in a three-way fight as the Pac-12's worst team with Colorado and Arizona. Oregon State is competitive at times, but the Beavers, as a young team with a green quarterback, make too many mistakes to beat most Pac-12 teams.

In 2011, that includes Washington State.

But the Beavers winning in Seattle is not out of the question. Vegas oddsmakers have WSU as only a 4-point favorite. We only have to turn back the clock a year ago when the Cougars beat far longer odds (-23.5) to bury Oregon State in Corvallis.

AND SO SATURDAY's outcome would seem pivotal to Washington State's season, and Wulff's future. Win, and the Cougars are 4-3, and earn a little cushion with Oregon looming on Oct. 29.

After that, WSU is looking at three consecutive games that all have win possibilities: at California, then home vs. Arizona State and Utah. The season finale is Nov. 26 vs. Washington.

It gets dicey if Oregon State beats the Cougars. Throw in another loss to the Ducks, and WSU is 3-5 and riding a four-game losing streak into November. Remember what I said about the gutter-snipers? They'll have the blow torches out, searching for Wulff's hide.

Wulff deserves a crack at 2012, but starting Saturday, he'll have to earn it.

The kickoff: This Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with television coverage on Root Sports. Washington State is a 4-point favorite.

The series: Washington State leads the series 48-44-3. The Cougars ended a three-game losing streak to OSU last year, winning 31-14 at Reser Stadium. OSU has won five of the past seven games against Washington State, including the past two in Pullman. The last time Oregon State and Washington State played off campus was 1970, when OSU beat the Cougars 28-16 in Spokane.

Familiar faces: As a border state, Oregon State not surprisingly has a lot of Washington talent on its team. The Beavers' roster includes 14 Washingtonians. Among those from Washington who start for OSU are junior tackle Colin Kelly (Kelso), sophomore left guard Grant Enger (Bothell), senior tight end Joe Halahuni (Orting), redshirt freshman defensive end Scott Crichton (Tacoma), junior safety Anthony Watkins (Burien) and senior punter Johnny Hekker (Bothell). None of Oregon State's coaches have ties to Washington State, although head coach Mike Riley has a loose one: he was an NFL coach at San Diego when former Cougar quarterback Ryan Leaf played for the Chargers.

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel.

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