Fight & fury, not Ws, will be WSU's benchmark

PULLMAN -- News item: Washington State opens the season with a 39-13 loss to Oklahoma State. News item: Idaho opens the season with a 70-0 loss to Arizona. Obvious question: Of all the years, why did the Cougars have to drop Idaho from their schedule THIS season?

Oh, what a relief it would be for the minds, bodies and souls of WSU football players to beat up on their border buddies from Idaho this weekend.

Instead, the Cougars must take on a California Bears squad loaded with the type of speed and athleticism that WSU simply cannot match, top to bottom. No, barring magic in the air, the Cougars aren't likely to beat Cal, which has been installed as a 13-point road favorite. However, the Cougs will show significant improvement in some areas. No matter what it looked like last Saturday in Seattle, one can presume the Cougars do have the ability to place someone inside the same area code as the opposing kick returner.


Interestingly, for all the ups-and-downs associated with WSU football over the years, the Cougars have started the season 0-2 just three times since 1980 (the last time coming in 1999, when WSU opened 0-4).

The Cougars have never started the season with two or more losses and then won their first road game (no, Seattle does not count as a road game). It says here that Washington State will make history by winning next week at Baylor. That can be attributed to a) the Cougars' continued improvement and b) Baylor's continued ineptness. Hey, it's a tradition down in Waco. Baylor's starting quarterback is a true freshman, for cryin' out loud.

The Cougars will follow up the Baylor victory with a home win over designated victim (read: Idaho in disguise) Portland State. The two-game winning "streak" will charge up the faithful for homecoming, where the Cougars will be a severe underdog to Oregon. With two road games next -- at UCLA and Oregon State -- and then a home date with USC, it could be an October to forget for the Cougs.

Stanford (on the road Nov. 1) and Washington (at home Nov. 22) figure to be the only Pac-10 games where WSU isn't a prohibitive underdog.

Yeah, things look tough, but that's what happens when you stumble on the recruiting trail. Take, for instance the 2004 crop of talent, which should be carrying a big load this season and should have carried a big load last year. Of the 28 signees in that class, only three made a significant impact -- Michael Bumpus, Jed Collins and Jerome Harrison. This season will tell the tale on Gary Rogers and Michael Willis.

On the other hand, no one can question the sheer effort of the Cougars last Saturday, and that is encouraging. Paul Wulff is the straight-shootin' new sheriff in town, and he has made it abundantly clear on numerous occasions that he won't settle for second-rate character, willpower and/or pain threshold.

Thus, when Wulff raved about the tenacity and determination of his troops in the loss to Oklahoma State, you know it is much more than simple coachspeak. The Cougars still have dozens of twists and turns to add to their new offense, and the defense and special teams must make strides, but the Cougars have zero chance -- zip, nada, zilch -- if they don't exert the maximum effort each and every Saturday.

But when players lay down and die for public consumption -- last year's Oregon and Oregon State games immediately come to mind -- you lose so much more than a sporting event. You lose the respect of teammates, coaches, fans and, ultimately, yourself. That is something any athlete, whether he or she is headed to stardom in the pros or headed to the bench in the rec league, can always avoid regardless of the final score or final resting place in the standings.

Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio said he always tried his best every moment of every game because he was aware that someone, somewhere, might be watching him for the first time. The Cougars would do well to keep that in mind when times get tough, as they most assuredly will on many occasions this year.

Football is a tough game played by tough people. The Cougars have three months to prove just how tough they are, even though their final record may not reflect how successful they have been in accomplishing something that ultimately is more important than wins and losses.

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