Apple Cup 2011: Not much at stake for WSU or UW
When Paul Wulff returned to his alma mater at Washington State he inherited the shell of a football program, beset by poor recruiting, academic sanctions that led to scholarship reductions and a level of apathy.
Whether he's done enough in four years to bring the Cougars closer to the level of respectability their fans demand is a polarizing debate among the crimson-and-gray faithful, and a decision that ultimately lies in the hands of Washington State athletic director Bill Moos.
It's with that backdrop that the Cougars enter the 104th Apple Cup on Saturday night against rival Washington at Seattle's CenturyLink Field.
Any tangible significance at stake in this version of the Apple Cup escaped a week ago when Utah pulled out a 30-27 overtime victory over the Cougars, ensuring Washington State (4-7) of another year without a trip to the postseason.
Washington (6-5) wrapped up a bowl trip a month ago, though it's looked far from bowl-worthy while dropping its past three.
That leaves Wulff's future as the ultimate unknown. It's a debate Cougars' players and coaches attempt to avoid, but can't help hear. Moos indicated that a decision on whether Wulff will return for the final year of his five-year contract could come early next week.
''Of course you hear it, but I don't pay attention to it,'' Cougars junior safety Tyree Toomer said. ''It's something you can't control. You just have to focus on the task at hand.''
There are arguments on both sides of the Wulff debate. He took over a program at one of its lowest points in the school's history and while the results haven't been evident on the field, the Cougars are undoubtedly a more talented and more competitive team than in Wulff's first two seasons.
The Cougars have already doubled their win total from a year ago and had a pair of three-point losses to UCLA and Utah decided in the final moments.
''They play confident, they play hard, they believe in what they're doing and that early on I think it was hard to do,'' Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said.
''You inherit a football team that's not all your guys, you come with a different style, a different brand, a different approach, but I think Paul has done a nice job of building that. I'm sure he'd be the first one to tell you he would like there to be more wins to show that, but when you watch the film it's evident they've gotten better.''
Despite the improvement in talent, the record is hard to ignore. The Cougars are 9-39 since Wulff took over and their season will be done following Saturday's game for the eighth straight year since beating Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl.
There's also the extra pressure of the school in the midst of a football specific fundraising campaign for a new press box/luxury box complex and operations center - and wins mean dollars.
Wulff isn't focusing on his future, rather how his young team may grow from this season.
''I don't think like that,'' Wulff said. ''We have a great young football team. This Is a good young team that is getting better and better all the time.''
While much of the focus lies on Wulff's future, there is a growing debate in the Washington community on the merits of defensive coordinator Nick Holt and a unit that continues to show signs of regression.
A year ago, Washington entered the Apple Cup with its defense on the rise, going seven quarters without giving up a touchdown before the Cougars popped for 28 points.
This year, Washington's defense is on pace to be among the worst in school history, having allowed more than 400 yards of offense to its opponents in four of the previous five games. Surprisingly, Oregon is the only school not to top the 400 mark on the Huskies.
Since routing Colorado 52-24 on Oct. 15, the Huskies are giving up an average of 41.6 points and 466 yards in the past five games.
''When you watch our defense and you are watching the film, in a lot of aspects we have gotten better,'' Sarkisian said. ''When you watch the game the other night it's a gain of 2, a gain of 1, a gain of 3, a gain of 4, and then it's a gain of 50, a gain of 30, a gain of 29, so consistently, yeah, I think we are getting better. But our ability to eliminate big plays still hasn't gotten to the point to where we need to be ultimately a really good defense. It just hasn't happened yet.''
Washington will get starting QB Keith Price back after he sat out last week's 38-21 loss at Oregon State because of injuries. Price is only two TD passes short of tying Washington's single-season school record of 28, but the key for the Huskies will likely be running back Chris Polk.
In last year's Apple Cup, Polk posted the second-best rushing day in Washington history, running for 284 yards on just 29 carries and scoring a pair of touchdowns in the Huskies' 35-28 victory that earned the team a trip to the Holiday Bowl.
On the other side, Washington State will start Marshall Lobbestael at QB after freshman Connor Halliday was hospitalized with a lacerated liver suffered in last week's loss to Utah. Lobbestael has started 10 of 11 games this season and has dangerous options in receivers Marquess Wilson and Jared Karstetter on the outside.
''Arguably the best football they've played this year is with Lobbestael at quarterback,'' Sarkisian said. ''And so, their schemes aren't going to change; it's the guy throwing the ball and making it happen, and Marshall has really had a tremendous season, especially early on when he was playing.''