Here Comes the Sun

Hello Followers. Hope your week is off to a good start.

Well, as the header and lead photo indicate, it appears that after a 2.5 year hiatus, the light of day has dawned on our beloved Cougar Football program. Wanna read my take on Cougar Football at the halfway point of the 2010 season? Then read on….

Followers, for years now, those who have supported Paul Wulff through the hardest of times have routinely given us the following cliché in the comments section of the blog:

“It’s always darkest before dawn.”

And you know, when you get as old and moldy as me, you come to realize that the reason why clichés tend to stick around is that they tend to do a really good job of depicting reality.
Of course, at the beginning of the season, most of us felt that our seemingly never ending peril of darkness belonged to past seasons. After all, we were promised as much, right?

Unfortunately for all of Cougar Nation, within second’s of the season’s opening kick-off, it became quite apperant that the darkest hours were not over yet. Instead, the darkest, and perhaps most fateful hours for Paul Wulff and his dream for Cougar Football were still to come….

So, as we reflect now on the first half of 2010, we can see what appears to be the darkest of dark hours for Paul Wulff and the Cougar Football Program—hours that were nearly terminal for Paul Wulff’s tenure as WSU’s head man. Simply put, were it not for the improbable comeback against MSU, Paul Wulff’s would not have lasted past the second week of the season.

But even beyond the MSU game, and as we documented here, Paul Wulff and his staff entered the UCLA game at an equally critical crossroads. And, while I am NOT entitled to all the inside information, I am 100% convinced that a weak showing against UCLA coupled with a blow-out loss to Oregon would have ended Wulff’s reign yesterday.

But, as fate would appear to suggest, the USC game represented the program’s final hour of darkness. Dawn was soon to arrive.

In week five, our Cougies led by EIGHT on the road against a UCLA team that had beaten Texas the week prior. Then, in week six, we unexpectedly stayed in the game against the #3 in the country through three quarters. When you compare that effort against a top 5 team in relation to how the 2004-2009 teams fared against top flight competition (save WSU-USC 2006), last Saturday’s result was nothing short of extraordinary!!!!!!!!!

So, as we move forward, the task confronting this team squarely centers on improving each week. And, while I am sure that other websites will give particular keys to our improvement, I will give you two:

I. Health. I know that many have lambasted Wulff’s comment about “Health” being a key takeaway following our game against SC, but he was absolutely right. Not only is health a concern for a program as young and thin as ours, it is a particular concern giving the INSANE structure of our schedule. I mean, have you seen the conference slate for this week? Nearly half the teams have a bye week! Of course, for us, we get 11 straight weeks of football in spite of having the most limited depth in the conference.

So, while it would sure be fun to focus all of our attention toward the scoreboard and stat sheet, I would suggest that we need to pay most of our attention to the Physician’s weekly report. Because, if we can continue to stay relatively healthy, then we’ll be able to implement the type of practices that Wulff and company want and need to generate improvement from game to game. Simply put, if we continue to stay healthy, I think we’ll see a VERY competitive Cougar team by December 5th.

II. Over 21, Under 30. Some of you might think that this is the targeted demographic for our advertising efforts at the WSU Football Blog. But, what this header is intended to indicate are the two “outputs” that I was looking for at the beginning of the season. Namely, I suspected that we would be able to win conference games the moment that our offense was consistently able to score more than 21 points on Pac-10 opponents while surrendering less than 30 on a consistent or semi-consistent basis. Once that occurred, I figured that, on at least one occasion, our offense would be able to exceed its average point output at the same time that our defense might actually hold someone down.

On the bright side, our offense now shows the consistent ability to score over 21 points. In fact, if you take out a few gaffes when we’ve had the ball inside the 11, we would have scored at least THIRTY POINTS in each of the past two games. And that is important, because in order to win a Pac-10 game, we’re going to have to win a 38-31 or 35-28 type affair. So clearly, if the offense irons out a few wrinkles—and learns how to execute in the 4th quarter—then we will soon have the potential to generate the type of offensive output we need to win. And obviously, that is a REALLY good thing.

Now, as for the defense, well, what can I say? To be sure, the effort and execution against a fantastic Oregon team was significant. At the same time, it is also important to note that we have still given up 42+ points the last three weeks in spite of moving the football. So, while our offensive improvement and execution certainly provides opportunities for our defense to improve (it can’t if it’s on the field for 75-90 plays a game), the flip side is that, if our offense has a bad day, our current defense promises to yield 50 or 60 points against just about anyone.

So, what do we need to see over the coming weeks? Personally, I’ve written off the idea that we are going to see any change in scheme this season. And to me, that’s still unfortunate, since the type of 3-4 defense we saw last year in the Apple Cup (with FAR inferior personnel) would win us a game or two the rest of the way.

Therefore, what I’m looking for now is continued improvement and activity from the defensive line. For me, that means continuing the type of work habits that led to a much, much improved effort this past Saturday. But even more than that, I’m looking for a bit more creativity—especially as our young linebackers get more experienced.

Specifically, I’d like to see us move Rankin around on the D line—including having him line up as a Defensive End a couple of times a series. I’d also like to see the coaches be much more aggressive in blitzing on third down–even if it means giving up a few more big plays.  Until such time that our D line can mount more pressure on the quarterback, we’re going to have to take LOTS of risks before we gain any reward (like seeing a punt).

So, what should we reasonably expect out of this team the rest of the way? Well, it sure seems that this week is yet another pivotal game for this football team. With Stanford sitting back with both a week off AND an additional week to prepare for us, next week doesn’t appear to be much fun (although I sure hope to be able to watch it). Moreover, Arizona figures to come into Pullman stinking mad this week—bolstered not only by their loss to the Beavs, but also an increased respect of us based on the way that we played last week. In other words, get blown out this weekend, and the threat really remains for us to take three or four GIANT steps back in the second half of the year.

However, IF this football team can find a way to play into the fourth quarter this weekend, then I think it is fair to say that we will have officially turned the corner into becoming the type of “competitive” team that Paul Wulff envisioned and promised at the beginning of the season.

From there, I think we’re all going to have to look at improvement much more incrementally than what our emotions and passion may allow. Meaning, barring an unforeseen blow out (we get a 28-3 lead or some such), we’re probably going to have to take a few games WELL into the fourth quarter before we finally pull one out. And, looking at our schedule, we probably only have a couple of games before the Apple Cup when that might happen. So, in the meantime, look for us FIRST to hold a team below forty. Once that occurs, then we’re getting in the ballpark of actually having a chance to win—instead of being a team that can hang around for 2-3 quarters.

So, if you’re looking for 2 wins in the second half, I think you’re going to be sorely disappointed. However, if you’re looking for a real chance at ONE Pac-10 victory, then it sure seems like December 5th is our best chance.

In the meantime, lets hope and pray for as many televised games as possible, because this team has become fun to watch.

All for now.  GO COUGS.