Except for special teams, Cougs make strides

PULLMAN -- Mark Rypien, the honorary captain of the Cougs and the pinch hitter for Jim Walden in the broadcast booth, was struck Saturday by how much Washington State has improved since last season. He also spared no words in diagnosing the biggest reason why Stanford upended WSU 39-13 in the season opener for both.

Special teams, he lamented in the post-game radio show, killed the Cougars. And not just in big plays surrendered, but in poor field position. Special teams players need to do some soul searching, he said, and the special teams coach needs to take a long look in the mirror.

Rypien didn't call out Cougar assistant Steve Broussard by name, and as far as the grapevine goes he harbors no personal animus toward Bruiser, but the old quarterback's frustration was palpable: A dramatically improved offensive effort and a porous but spirited defensive performance was undone by blown assignments on the punt and kickoff coverage teams and an ill-advised kickoff return from deep in the endzone.

Add a missed chipped-shot field goal try that foiled a nifty, 19-play first-series drive to the Stanford 2 and you have the perfect special teams storm.

Indeed, aside from punter Reid Forrest, who looked all-world against the Card, the Cougars' special teams were a calamity. They surrendered 210 yards in punt and kickoff returns. The carnage included a game-breaker by Cardinal receiver Chris Owusu who took a kickoff 85 yards for a TD after the Cougs had narrowed the score to 22-10 on Kevin Lopina's first-ever collegiate touchdown pass -- a 5-yarder to Jared Karstetter -- early in the third quarter.

"Yeah it's deflating but those are the things we talked about a team handling adversity right away and attacking it," said head coach Paul Wulff of Owusu's return.

He said the breakdowns on special teams were largely a result of some youngsters being out of position. While disappointing, it's correctible, he noted.

In all, however, he -- and most close observers of the program -- found lots to like in the Cougars' work Saturday. Wulff said the Cougs are "100 times better" than last season. "We did have a couple of special teams blunders that hurt us but this is a whole different team.

"We've been working on a lot of things with our team in terms of team unity, perseverance, body language, all the things we've lacked. I thought all those things were displayed today," Wulff said. "I think you saw a much more physical team out there. As well as discipline, we took care of the football.

"The thing that really got us was big plays. We didn't make enough big plays, and they made more than we did, and that was really the deciding factor … I'm proud of the way we did perform. The nice thing is we can get a lot better. As soon as we start making some big plays and making some things happen we can make some big steps as a football team … I was very pleased with what we saw from a lot of guys without a lot of experience."

Much of the inexperience is found on the defensive line. Wulff noted that three of his four starters there were taking their first Pac-10 snaps: Josh Luapo, Bernard Wolfgramm and Travis Long. " … it's going to be a great experience for those guys to get better … I think we defended their running game pretty darn well," said Wulff. "Defensively I think we did some good things against one of the best running teams no question in the conference."

One of the biggest bright spots for the Cougs was the all-purpose play of junior running back James Montgomery, a transfer from Cal who red shirted last season. He tallied 155 total yards: 90 on kickoff returns, 39 rushing and 26 receiving.

Coming off a 2-11 season last year, Lopina said that when it comes to improvement, the team showed there's a new mindset in Cougarville.

"I think we've taken a step toward proving it -- unfortunately we lost but I think if you were here you could see we were a physical team and we were working hard," said Lopina. "I think physically and mentally we've taken a big step."

On defense, the Cougars' hit of the day belonged to safety Eric Block who de-cleated Owusu on a 3-and-24 play in the third quarter. "He's been making plays like that through camp and it's nice to have him out there, he's a good, heady football player," said WSU co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball. Unfortunately for Block, he suffered a stinger on the play. Neither he nor Owusu returned to action after the hit.

NOTABLE NOTES:

* WR Kevin Norrell did not play Saturday after missing most of the past week because of the flu.

* Chima Nwachukwu spent almost the entire game at CB on the opposite side of CB Brandon Jones. S LeAndre Daniels went down in the fourth quarter because of cramps, so Nwachukwu moved back to S and Daniel Simmons entered at CB.

* Receiver Daniel Blackledge led the Cougars with 6 receptions for 67 yards, while Jared Karstetter had 3 catches for 91 yards and a TD.

* Lopina finished 10-of-16 with 122 yards and a TD, while Marshall Lobbestael finished 8-of-13 for 78 yards. Don't look for any QB controversy. Lopina, the starter, looked smooth and Wulff said after the game he is definitely No. 1.

* True freshman receiverGino Simone finished with 12 total yards, 7 on the ground, and 5 in the air off one reception. Fellow true freshman Travis Long finished with one tackle (a sack).

* MLB Louis Bland let the Cougar defense with 10 tackles, 8 of them solo.

* Stanford's Richard Sherman had a 53-yard punt return that ended at the WSU 5 with a touchdown saving tackle by safety Xavier Hicks. On the ensuing series, on 4th-and goal, LB Andy Mattingly got to Stanford QB Andrew Luck as he was about to throw, causing an incomplete pass and saving a TD for WSU.

* WSU had 351 total yards of offense, Stanford 481.

* The Cougs will play Hawaii next Saturday in Seattle. Kickoff is at 4 pm. The Warriors beat Central Arkansas 25-20 on Saturday.

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