But here's the bottom line: Bill Moos, the dynamic athletic director, needs to make a bold statement soon and end any speculation on whether Wulff will return in 2011. Just say it's going to happen.

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STANFORD, Calif. — The thump of equipment trunks being loaded onto a truck sounded here late Saturday outside Washington State’s locker room. Cougars emerged, just now tasting their 14th straight Pac-10 defeat.

Some of them wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with crimson letters. It’s as ironic for most of us as it is inspiring for them: NO END IN SIGHT.

Quarterback Jeff Tuel explained it as a gift from baseball coach Donnie Marbut, simply a battle cry never to quit.

WSU didn’t do that against Stanford, losing 38-28. And even if the 21 fourth-quarter points were mostly meaningless, they’re a sign. WSU has now hung tough against four straight opponents in October, ill equipped to win but not about to roll over, either.

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“We’re three or four plays away each game,” said WSU coach Paul Wulff. “Not long ago, it was 20 or 30 plays.”

Three or four plays might be a stretch. The Cougars still need a playmaker at defensive tackle, and they pretty much can’t run the ball.

But here’s the bottom line: Bill Moos, the dynamic athletic director, needs to make a bold statement soon and end any speculation on whether Wulff will return in 2011. Just say it’s going to happen.

Want a gauge of how hard it is in this league? Look to Dennis Erickson at Arizona State and Rick Neuheisel at UCLA. Whatever you think of their methods and their track records, each had rousing, early success at their last job in the Pac-10, going to BCS bowl games in their second seasons at Oregon State and Washington, respectively.

Today, in their third year in their current jobs like Wulff, they’re being fried by their local critics. Part of the reason is, the Pac-10 has changed. This isn’t 1995, when there were three teams at 3-8 or worse. It’s not 1999, when nobody finished in the AP top 18. It’s not even 2000, when it was glorious up top, but there was a thick bottom layer with California, USC and WSU all at 2-6 in the Pac-10.

Some of the challenges Wulff has had have been massive, and it’s astonishing how some fans can slough those off so easily.

The APR-driven, scholarship deficit WSU faced starting in 2008? Well, just make do with less. The injury-stricken 2009 season, documented as the hands-down worst attrition in college football? Ah, just go to the waiver wire. The steady, 11-games-in-11-weeks dirge before a bye in 2010, when no other Pac-10 team opens with more than seven straight? Well, just take more naps.

No question, Wulff’s won-lost record resembles a tornado aftermath. Four wins, 29 losses, a single Pac-10 victory. Has there been an element of Wulff learning on the job? No doubt. Could he somehow have been more accommodating to the holdover players from the Bill Doba regime? Maybe.

But the grimmest times for WSU supporters ought to be over. You’re in this deeply; it doesn’t make a lot of sense to start over, to tear up another recruiting class, at a significant cost.

Wulff might not have much traction if it weren’t for the fact WSU has so many promising young players. It’s apparent he and his staff can project talent from among the less-acclaimed pool of recruits — precisely the way you have to do it in Pullman.

Marquess Wilson, plucked out of central California, entered the game leading the nation’s freshmen in catches and yardage per game. Safety Deone Bucannon, another freshman, has had 31 tackles against Arizona and Stanford. A one-star recruit from the Bay Area, Sekope Kaufusi, has shown himself to be a keeper at linebacker.

The Cougars found Tuel outside of Fresno. Cal took Beau Sweeney, who kept Tuel on the bench in high school, but Sweeney hasn’t been able to displace an average quarterback in Kevin Riley, while Tuel looks like one of the better young guys under center in the Pac-10.

In the depth behind Tuel is Conner Halliday of Spokane. Offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy told me recently, “He can be special. He’s as accurate as anybody I’ve ever been around.”

If that forecast is in the ballpark, compare the Tuel-Halliday combination to what Wulff inherited when he arrived in Pullman.

It would be fair for Moos to attach strings to retaining Wulff. Make it clear he needs wins — several, anyway — next season, to rise toward that vast middle class of the Pac-10.

Absent those, it will be clear he isn’t the guy to lead the Cougars out of the abyss.

But we don’t know that yet. Until we do, he ought to be back.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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