APPLE CUP NOTEBOOK: Big Joe likes the cold

PULLMAN -- On the defensive side of the ball during Monday night's practice, the front seven of the Cougs were hootin' and hollerin' and making plays. That kind of high-spirited action usually leads to WSU defensive line coach Joe Salave'a doing something outlandish. It was 19 degrees at the time, but Big Joe wasn't going to let a little thing like the freezing cold stop him.

Despite the bitter cold, there was Salave'a on Monday night -- going sleeveless out on the frozen gridiron.

The Cougar assistant and former NFL d-tackle said he wanted to support his guys on the field -- and all the while also making a statement to his players.

"Our guys have been doing some good things out there," Salave'a said. "It'll never be good enough, but they continue to make strides every single week. I wanted to go sleeveless to show these guys I'm one of them."

And?

"That, and I lost a bet," Salave'a laughed.

The bet itself and the stakes were never divulged.

INDEED, THE SPIRIT of Apple Cup week has enveloped everybody in the program. For Salave'a, this season marks the beginning – he envisions a very powerful Cougar defensive line for years to come on the Palouse. He said this 2013 vintage doesn't yet realize its potential. That makes him eager for the seasons to come.

"We're still so young," Salave'a said. "That's the ironic and scary thing."

Salave'a said there are many d-linemen coming up through the program that the team should see sustained success up front for the foreseeable future. He also added that Friday's game against the Huskies means more to the Cougs than many can imagine.

This will be the coaching staff's second Apple Cup. Last year, coaches went into it sight unseen. Now, Salave'a said the broad scope of the rivalry is clear to all. For Salave'a personally, seeing his players celebrate a win in Seattle over their rivals would cap things off nicely before a bowl game.

"This game means a lot," Salave'a said. "There are generations and generations of family members in this rivalry for some guys out here. We're all tied in to this program now where it doesn't take long to realize the magnitude and the importance this game means to so many people."

Salave'a said he's close with Husky QBs coach and former UW signal caller Marques Tuiasosopo.

"Guys like Marques," Salave'a laughed. "Marques, he's been around this rivalry forever. It means a lot to him. I don't try to get caught up in the bragging rights thing, but Marques being a former athlete there he has a lot of history there. It doesn't take long being around him to understand this significance of this game."

Salave'a pointed to the emergence of guys like senior nose tackle Ioane Gauta and fourth year junior d-end Toni Pole, as well as the continued progression of third-year sophomore DE Xavier Cooper as having paid dividends. The depth on the defensive line is richer than in years' past, and that is in large part due to the coaching and recruiting put forth from Salave'a, though he deflects credit for that towards Mike Leach and the rest of the staff.

But while the talent continues to blossom, there's a next step that has to be taken in 2014, Salave'a said.

"We don't fully believe just yet," Salave'a said. "When you've been battered and beaten for quite some time it loses the teams' direction. These guys went through a lot. That's one thing we've been trying to re-establish. Working with confidence, working with belief, doesn't matter the situation. These guys need to realize they can compete with anybody in the country. That's one thing we've seen these kids grow on every single week."

WHILE THE D-LINE was having a good time of it, the Cougs' punting unit continued to try to pull its feet out of the mud on Monday night.

The session saw senior Mike Bowlin and junior Wes Concepcion share punting duties, neither putting on much of a showcase in the bitter cold. Both Bowlin and Concepcion would hit the occasional 50-yard boot, but the majority of kicks were landing in the 25-35 yard range.

Special Teams coach Eric Russell was unavailable for comment following the late practice. It remains to be seen who will handle punting duties on Friday for the Cougs – Bowlin was replaced midway through the Utah win by Concepcion. And Andrew Furney handles all kickoffs in the victory over the Utes.

Bowlin is averaging just 31.8 yards per punt in the last two contests, highlighted by a three-yard shank that drew more ire from fans and pundits alike. The Cougs rank 90th in the country in net punting.

Whoever the Cougs' punter is on Friday, Washington State's chances for victory can only go up if they compete in all three phases of the game. It's also worth mentioning this gleaming nugget about Russell's special teams: the Cougs were downright exemplary on their kickoff coverage units this past Saturday -- allowing an average of just 16.7 yards on seven returns by Utah.

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