COMMENTARY: Bracing for one long season

FOR WASHINGTON STATE fans, the quick and dirty reaction from the Cougars' season opener Saturday against Oklahoma State had to be one of horror.


Is this what it's like to hit bottom?

Not quite. Bottom is what they've hit at that school on the west side of the Cascades. Lose to the Ducks five consecutive times? That's bottom.

A 39-13 shellacking by Oklahoma State was close, though.

Clear-thinking fans knew the score heading into the game. They were aware this was Paul Wulff's first game as Washington State coach. That he was implementing a new offense, largely with players he did not recruit and with a number of key contributors injured or hobbling. That the program was rocked with myriad offseason problems, from academic casualties to a contact lens solution caper gone bad.

Even against a middling Big 12 team like Oklahoma State, the odds were stacked against the Cougars.

But 39-13?

When does basketball season start, anyway?

Washington State had better hope the old football adage – measure a team by its second game, not the first – kicks in, because it's going to be one long year if Saturday's debacle is the yard stick.

It wasn't just the final score, as lopsided as it was. At no point in the game, except perhaps the opening kickoff, did it feel like Washington State had a chance.

The offense lacked production or polish. Special teams were beyond dreadful. The defense showed grit, but was so overworked it didn't stand a chance to shine.

Consider this comment from Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy:

"We spent most of the game inside the 20-yard line and, I'll be real honest with you, we don't have a big play list from inside the 20. Every time I looked down at the call sheet we were inside the 20-yard line, which is a good thing. But it's just a little unusual to be down there that much."

If anyone had an idea that rebuilding the Cougar football program was a short-term venture, that thought ended Saturday.

This is a three-year project, minimum.

As nice as a lay-up opener would have been for Wulff – say, Idaho or Northern Arizona like the Arizona schools lined up for first-game patsies – playing a veteran team coming off a bowl game like Oklahoma State leaves no one with delusion.

There's a reason Washington State made a coaching change. Saturday's game confirmed there's plenty of work to do.

Wulff has company, for sure. He was one of 17 coaches debuting with a Division I program this weekend.

Now, a few of them were handed the keys to a Mercedes, such as Arkansas' Bobby Petrino. Other first-timers need only make a few tweaks to get things rolling, like UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Michigan's Rich Rodriguez.

But coaches wearing shoes similar to Wulff – that is, charged with rebuilding a a recent loser into a winning program -- found their openers painful. Such as Jerry Kill of Northern Illinois, a 31-27 loser to truly awful Minnesota. Or Art Briles of Baylor, which had to endure a 41-13 pounding to Wake Forest.

So Pullman isn't the only town playing host to a pity party.

The upcoming week figures to be interesting. Problem is, NCAA rules only allow players to spend 20 hours preparing for their sport. What happened Saturday is going to take a 24-7-365 solution.

It's going to require a few years of rebuilding the roster. The Cougars' special teams problems will not markedly improve until Wulff can restock the program with athletes. Right now, it's asking too much for the starters to learn a new system and oh, by the way, can you play on the kick return team, too?

That said, it's not as if there isn't reason for a little hope for this season. And not because Portland State and Washington remain on the schedule.

There were some encouraging signs from Washington State's defense. They were put in impossible field position situations throughout the game, and yet, showed some grit and didn't cave. The Cougars defense didn't give up a lot of big plays, which has been a problem in the past.

But – isn't there always a but with Cougar football? – this should be pointed out: almost every team in the Pac-10 has a receiver of Dez Bryant's quality. In the second half, Oklahoma State knew it could get yards any time it wanted just by lobbing a ball to Bryant, knowing he could out-jump WSU corners 5-10ish corner, Romeo Pellum and Tyrone Justin.

The defense could be WSU's strength, especially if it gets a little help from the offense. It should; that was a hamstrung unit Saturday, from a personnel and learning standpoint. Not to mention that Brandon Gibson is unlikely to drop as many passes the rest of the season as he did against Oklahoma State.

Maybe next Saturday is not the time to bring on California, which is every bit as explosive, and probably more so, than Oklahoma State. But, as Wulff is fond to say, it is what it is.

As the Cowboys painfully pointed out Saturday, what it is for Cougar football is a long-term project.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Daschel, making his CF.C debut, covered Washington and Washington State football, and to a lesser extent, the Pacific-10 Conference, for The Columbian in Vancouver over the past two decades.

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