Young Cougs need to quell first-half jitters

THE DIFFERENCE between the first and second halves is not as simple as fiery speeches and coaching adjustments at halftime. It's about experience. WSU coach Paul Wulff said during his news conference Sunday that his team's inexperience results in many players being overanxious in the opening half.

That particularly is true on the defensive side, where seven of Saturday's starters in the Cougars' 30-27 overtime win against Southern Methodist didn't play a down of college football last season, including the entire defensive line.

"It's a very young team in terms of game experience," Wulff said. "You get guys that are trying to do everything right without a tremendous amount of background. We've pressed and played tight. We kind of calm our nerves down enough and let the games come to us a little bit."

Hawaii and SMU have combined to outscore WSU 49-9 during the first half the last two weeks. But after halftime, the Cougars have a 40-17 scoring advantage.

Wulff said some of that also was related to better execution on the offensive side. The offensive line, which has lost both starting guards the last two weeks, did not play well, but Wulff felt they protected quarterback Marshall Lobbestael "a little better" in the second half.

He also liked the competitiveness Lobbestael displayed. In his first start of the season, the sophomore completed 24 of 52 passes for 239 yards along with a couple of touchdowns and interceptions.

"That's a trait he brings to the table that any team would love to have," Wulff said. "It's a positive asset for us."

Wulff said WSU (1-2 overall, 0-1 conference) will focus on being calmer at the start of the game when it returns to Pac-10 play Saturday at USC. The Trojans (2-1, 0-1) were upset 16-13 at Washington on Saturday.

Someone suggested during the conference that Wulff might follow his former coach, Mike Price, and dress as "Tommy Trojan" in an effort to loosen up his team. He declined the opportunity.

Wulff believes that inexperience also impacted USC against UW. With true freshman starter Matt Barkley unavailable, redshirt freshman Aaron Corp started and completed 13 of 22 passes. But he did not throw a touchdown and was intercepted once.

"I know they're trying to break in a new quarterback," said Wulff, citing the Trojans' failure to convert any of their 10 third-down plays. "When you have someone who isn't settled, you will struggle."

Wulff anticipates Barkley, a true freshman, will play this week. He said "we sure as heck don't want it to be" a challenge of adjusting to a balanced offensive team after playing against run-and-shoot offenses the last two weeks.

The Cougars played a lot of zone defense against SMU, which Wulff said lends itself to more interceptions, along with getting pressure on the quarter. Mustangs quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell completed 40 of 57 passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns against the Cougars, but also was intercepted four times. Two were returned for touchdowns.

"When you make plays, it picks up the intensity and the emotion," Wulff said. "You could see that in the second half.

"We didn't play a great game, but we found a way to win. We made way more big plays on defense than we gave up."

Despite all the interceptions, starting defensive end Travis Long -- one of two true freshmen who has started this season -- was named the team's defensive player of the game. Long had a team-high two tackles for loss among his nine tackles.

"He's a fine young player," Wulff said. "We knew it when we signed him. He's only going to get better and better."

Wulff also likes Jason Stripling's progression. After a mostly injury-plagued collegiate career, Stripling emerged during fall camp as the starting weak-side linebacker and has not relinquished the position.

"Jason is becoming more and more consistent on his assignments," Wulff said. "There's a lot of talent there. It's been great to see him take a big leap in his performance."

THE DEPTH CHART TOOK another hit, particularly on the offensive line, against SMU. Sophomore B.J. Guerra, the starter at right guard, sprained a medial collateral ligament in his knee, and Wulff said he likely will miss six to eight weeks. Zack Williams, who started the first two games at left guard, is out for one to three more weeks after sustaining a high ankle sprain against Hawaii.

Wulff said the injuries might mean true freshman Alex Reitnouer has to play this year. Reitnouer signed with the Cougars in 2008, but delayed his enrollment until January. He added that playing junior Andrew Roxas likely is not an option because he has not been cleared. Roxas returned to school this month after suffering from viral hepatitis.

Wulff also expects senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman (knee) to miss two more weeks. Redshirt freshman Dan Spitz made his first start against SMU in his place.


* True freshman Jeff Tuel might play against USC, but Wulff said that will depend on Lobbestael's play.

* Wulff said junior Nico Grasu has displaced senior Patrick Rooney as the team's kickoff specialist. "He flat out has kicked the ball higher and deeper than Pat Rooney," he said. "It's such an advantage to have the opposing team start on the 20-yard line."

* Both senior Dwight Tardy and junior James Montgomery played with injuries against SMU. Wulff is hopeful that both will be healthier against USC.

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