Michael C. Lewis: Washington State is turning things around
Marquess Wilson hauled in the pass on the left side of the field, split two defenders leaning the wrong way, and raced all the way to the end zone to punctuate perhaps the most surprising development of the Pac-12 Conference season so far.
The Washington State Cougars are rolling.
Led by a backup quarterback who leads one of the nation's best passing games, the Cougars are no longer performing their traditional task of mopping up the league basement.
Instead, they're 3-1 after winning a grand total of just five games in the last three seasons, and enjoying the glow of a come-from-behind 31-27 victory at Colorado last weekend that precisely equalled the number of road games they had won in those three previous seasons under coach Paul Wulff.
"When we win on the road and we're behind late, I think it says a lot about character, a lot about perseverance," Wulff said. "They've been working hard to get a road win. I think it says a lot."
It's not as if the Cougars are on their way to the Rose Bowl just yet, of course.
Their victories and the impressive numbers in the passing game have come against a pretty weak schedule that includes Idaho State, UNLV and now a Colorado team that is suffering through one the worst periods in its history. The Buffs are hurting so bad that furious first-year coach Jon Embree nearly came unglued in the postgame press conference.
"When is enough, enough?" he fumed.
Just the same, though, nobody expected the Cougars to perform this well.
They were a miserable 5-32 the past three years, after all, with only three of the victories over fellow Division I teams. They were just 2-25 in the Pac-10 during that span, and picked by a long way in the preseason media poll to finish last in the Pac-12 North Division this season. Wulff was widely viewed as the most likely Pac-12 coach to lose his job.
Now, everything looks different.
Quarterback Marshall Lobbestael has blossomed into a fine replacement for injured starter Jeff Tuel Tuel isn't expected back for at least another week the offense appears capable of being a real threat throughout the season, and the Cougars have a chance to build on their 10-point comeback in the final five minutes at Colorado with a Saturday game at struggling UCLA.
Even a bowl game isn't out of the question, with upcoming games against Oregon State and Utah at home and a revamped roster that Wulff characterized as more mature and committed than years past.
"We have to keep grinding and moving forward," Wulff said. "We have not by any means reached our potential. There's a lot of room for growth, and that's our focus. â¦ I like the direction we're headed."
The WSU Cougars are off to an unexpectedly good start:
Year Overall League
2008 2-11 1-8
2009 1-11 0-9
2010 2-10 1-8
2011 3-1 1-0