Cougar starting units look sharp

PULLMAN—It is nearly impossible to talk to a Washington State football player or coach these days without hearing the phrase "three-game season." From coach Bill Doba to star tailback Jerome Harrison to the last backup on the bench, it's clear everyone on the team is well aware of the task at hand.

With three weeks left in the regular season, the Cougars need three wins in order to play in a bowl game. After Wednesday's practice, it was no different.

"Our mindset is to beat Arizona State. It's a three-game season now," said safety Eric Frampton.

"We're excited about this week," added offensive tackle Charles Harris. "It's a three-game season for us, so that's what we're focused on. We have to win this week."

While Frampton and the defense has been much-maligned in giving up 41.8 points per Pac-10 game in five conference losses, Harris is part of one of WSU's bright spots in a season that's grown dark for the Cougars (3-5 overall, 0-5 in the Pac-10). The offensive line -- center Nick Mihlhauser, guards Norvell Holmes and Sean O'Connor, and tackles Harris and Bobby Byrd -- have even outperformed last season's unit, which boasted NFL draft pick Calvin Armstrong and massive tackle Sam Lightbody.

This year's version of the Cougars O-line has bolstered an offense that's scoring over 35 points per game. They've paved the way for a rushing attack that's posting 214.1 yards per game (third in the Pac-10), opening holes for Harrison who's leading the conference and No. 2 in the nation with 1,310 yards on the ground. The line has also protected quarterback Alex Brink, having allowed a league low nine sacks all season.

"The first play of the season, Jerome runs for an 80-yard touchdown, so we knew then that this would be a special year," Harris said. "We're growing up every week as a unit. As one, we're coming together."

One reason for the improvement? Consistency. Whereas the starting five was juggled throughout 2004, the same five players have started in their respective positions for every game this season.

"It's really nice, having been together since spring ball," Harris said. "You don't have to worry about someone new coming in for your spot. It's just been fun."

WHILE THE OFFENSE as a whole—including the line—felt the effects of Tuesday's wet, cold and windy conditions, Wednesday's practice was free from rain or heavy wind. As a result, the Cougars passing game looked much better than the previous day. Brink and backup Josh Swogger were on-point, and the receivers were catching mostly everything thrown to them.

On the ground, freshman running back DeMaundray Woolridge turned in the play of the day. On a sweep, the 5-foot-8, 223-pound Texan bounced outside and had only one man -- pulling offensive guard Dan Rowlands -- standing in his path. Woolridge was just accelerating into another gear when the 6-foot-5, 283-pound Rowlands (with no one to block) turned back inside to find a defender, leaving Woolridge with no option but to slam into his blocker and bowl Rowlands over on his way to a touchdown.

THE DEFENSE looked solid Wednesday, especially the secondary, picking off scout team quarterbacks Cole Morgan and Arkelon Hall more than a handful of times. It's often hard to judge the run defense during practice, since the team doesn't full-on tackle in practice, but scout-team running backs Dwight Tardy and Isao Puailoa found little running room.

On the injury front, WSU was without receiver Marty Martin (concussion), defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua (leg), receiver Michael Bumpus (ankle), linebacker Will Derting (knee), linebacker Jason Stripling (leg bruise), running back Kevin McCall (ankle) and tight end Jesse Taylor (stinger).

In Bumpus and Martin's absence, Chris Jordan was the starting slot receiver Wednesday. With Taylor out, fullback Jed Collins spent most of the day working with the tight ends. It doesn't look to be a permanent position switch for the versatile Collins—who has played linebacker, fullback, tight end and special teams in his short Cougar career—but perhaps just a chance for the WSU coaches to get Collins onto the field.

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