We won a game!
Well, mostly. Lost in the jubilation over the Cougars' 30-27 victory over SMU is the fact we were basically handed the game on four bad balls from Bo Levi Mitchell - two of which were returned for touchdowns. The Mustangs blew a 17-0 lead, and, despite racking up a 504 to 276 total yards advantage, gave the game away.
Or did they? Was it inspired play by the Cougar defense that ruined Mitchell's day and drove the Cougars to victory?
That's the thing with Wulff. All of a sudden, I can't get a read on whether I love him or I hate him. Whether he'll be the savior of the program or the catalyst to drag us down to depths we've never reached.
For three quarters Saturday, honestly, I wanted him fired. SMU, a program not much stronger than the weakened Hawaii program we had faced a week earlier, had jumped out to a 17-0 lead. Despite his decree to use Jeff Tuel and Marshall Lobbestael, Wulff stuck with Lobster despite two harmful interceptions and a completion percentage under fifty percent. I could see the program circling the drain - from three ten win seasons and the Rose Bowl, to the mediocrity of the Doba era, to 0-12 and the laughingstock of the conference. The moment I found out Steve Sarkisian's revitalized UW program had upset mighty USC, I started formulating my list of new head coaching candidates: Robb Akey, Nick Holt, Turner Gill. Heck, we probably don't even have a shot at a Kyle Whittingham or Chris Petersen, even though we would have seven years ago.
But then: the comeback. AH-E gets a pick six. Myron Beck and his flowing mane of hair does the same on an even bigger return. Then, Lobbestael, after a terrible attempt at a game tying drive his previous time out, guides the Cougars on an eighty yard march to the promised land. Silences his critics in the crowd. Gives the Cougars all the momentum in the world heading into OT.
The defensive backfield, our achilles' heel so far this year, was phenomenal. Brandon Jones makes a diving INT to keep SMU from going up ten in the fourth. Chima Nwachukwu picks off the first pass of overtime to give the Cougars an easy path to victory. And the special teams issues? Resolved. Nico Grasu comes back from a missed FG and muffed PAT attempt to hit the game winner. Grasu's kickoffs found the endzone and beyond, and his one squib kick was a beauty down the middle, deep into SMU territory. His game winner came on another clutch performance - shades of the Apple Cup winner last fall. Even through the same goalposts at the East end.
And the stadium was rocking. The best moment? The WSU student section shifting over into empty seats near the East end zone as the Cougars took the field defensively to start OT. Of course, before they could get settled in, Nwachukwu had caught the key INT to set up the Cougar win.
Still - we needed all that magic to beat SMU. A program that struggled two games earlier with Steven F. Austin. Death Penalty U; still far removed from its former glory. We were lucky in some ways: outgained, outplayed for the majority of this game - we either stole this game or it was given to us.
One can't help but question the coaching decisions that put us in a 17-0, and later a 24-7, hole. Again with the 3-3-5 defense after getting schooled by Hawaii? Only nine touches for the best offensive playmaker, James Montgomery? Pass play after pass play for the struggling Marshall Lobbestael? No Tuel or Lopina after previous promises to find the best guy and stick with him? Of course Wulff's gamble on Lobbestael paid off on this one, but it makes you wonder if we'll be so lucky the next time. It's hard to sugar coat the fact that Marshall struggled for much of the day.
Meanwhile, there were some inspired decisions by Wulff. Using his timeouts wisely near the end of the first half to set up the Cougar touchdown that would bring us within ten. Saving his timeouts in the second half - to allow the Cougars plenty of time and clock stoppages at their disposal for the game tying drive. Firing up the defense in the second half. Utilizing Johnny Forzani, Daniel Blackledge and Jared Karstetter in ways that made us forget we even had wide receiver depth problems in the first place. Making the right call to keep Lobbestael on the field, instead of the emotional one that might have pulled him off it. Having faith in Grasu after another early miss.
And remember all the penalties under Doba? Yet again, the Cougs played clean ball in Pullman. Four penalties for forty-five yards. One of the personal fouls was a mental lapse by Bernard Wolfgramm, the other undeserved on a terrible call. This was the kind of blemish-free play I'd been praying for years earlier. Not to mention the roster cleaning up its actions off the field. Players are now accountable. Commit a significant crime? Fail to make it academically? You're gone. Incoming players in particular under Wulff are facing less external discipline than they did under Doba.
Of course, the performance on the field has been inconsistent at best. Sometimes it's worth it to take a chance on a player with questionable character and make the most of the upside (see: every Dennis Erickson team ever). And the disparities in talent have been clear. Even mid-majors like SMU and Hawaii can claim an advantage in speed and size at certain positions. I cringe at how things might play out when we're up against top tier Pac-10 talent. Better than last year, certainly, but nothing to write home about.
Then, there's recruiting. It's looking good. The recruiting services have many of our players ranked nationally. We're locking down the hometown kids: from Spokane, the west side, and the necessary players from California. Excuse me though if I can't help but think our roster is starting to look a lot like Eastern Washington's. Almost exclusively kids from the Evergreen State and California. Our former pipeline to Texas has been cut off, even though you can see the benefit of it on the field in the form of players like Chima Nwachukwu.
At the end of the day I can't decide. I'm thrilled we avoided 0-12. I'm shocked we have to deal with the threat of that futility in the first place. I feel there are times Wulff is in over his head, and that gimmicky no-huddle offense should have been left back with the Eastern Eagles. I also feel there are times that Wulff is resurrecting a program from its lowest depths with exceptional recruiting and decent in-game coaching. He wins close games; something Doba rarely did. But he also gets blown out. A lot. We've had some brilliant moments, but we've also had quite a few embarrassments.
Wulff has only had a little over a year to coach at WSU. Hardly enough time to give a conclusive evaluation. And yet, the Cougs are getting killed out there. USC ran out the clock during the first half last year, in scoring position with a 41-0 lead, out of pity for the crimson and gray team they were slaughtering. If there was a mercy rule, it would've been enacted. And yet we beat a Washington team last year that had much of the talent that beat USC today. We look like a team that could get beat by a FCS team at any moment; yet we blew out the one FCS opponent we've faced under Wulff.
I'm at a loss to decide if Wulff is our savior or our program-killer.
So, now, I turn the question over to you.