Oregon State shows plenty more zest than Oregon State

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Nothing has come easy for Paul Wulff’s football regime at Washington State. Nothing, from the blunt, early assessment that the Cougars were pitifully undersized, to the unfathomable blowouts, to the erosion of alumni belief that this thing is going to work someday.

Someday, maybe it will. Not today. Not Saturday night, not the way the Cougars played.

“It was a disgraceful performance, that’s what it was,” fumed linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis as he headed to the WSU locker room.

A Washington State football team that had mostly hit the right notes in the first half of the season turned in a clunker at CenturyLink Field. Among the lessons learned in a 44-21 defeat to Oregon State are that you don’t minimize any Pac-12 team, not even one with a single victory.

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Here’s another: Forget that notion of WSU getting to a bowl game this year.

If the Cougars (3-4) don’t block any more consistently, and don’t get any more defensive push than they got against the Beavers, the question will be whether they can somehow squeeze out another victory in 2011, not whether they can muster the three necessary for postseason eligibility.

The Beavers (2-5) played with more zest, more physicality and more purpose. The OSU defensive line mostly abused the Cougars up front. On a play late in the first half, as WSU tried to cut into a 10-point deficit, the Beavers brought a three-man rush, and WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel had to madly flee a couple of linemen before throwing incomplete.

Defensively, the Cougars were a mess, allowing OSU to score on four of five possessions in the first half. That seemed bad until it eventually became eight of nine scoring possessions.

“I feel they had a little chip on their shoulder because of what happened last year,” said WSU linebacker Sekope Kaufusi, referring to the Cougars’ 31-14 surprise victory in Corvallis. “They wanted revenge.”

In what has become a star-crossed season, Tuel didn’t play in the second half after taking a couple of punishing hits late in the second quarter and sustaining a left-shoulder problem of undetermined severity. The easy out for WSU is that it’s tough to win without your starter in there, but that’s a cop-out. The Cougars could have had Tom Brady under center and they wouldn’t have won.

Not when you allow a redshirt-freshman quarterback, Sean Mannion, making his fifth start, to strafe your defense mercilessly.

The Beavers were averaging 386 yards a game before this. They had 300 in the first half, finishing with 551. The Cougars couldn’t get pressure with their down four, they couldn’t get it with five, and couldn’t get it with six.

Big problem.

All this happened on a night when the Beavers were without a starting defensive tackle, Castro Masaniai, and two starting linebackers, Cameron Collins and Feti Unga. The Cougars came out with a running mindset, had only middling success with it, and never seemed to capture a real offensive rhythm.

“We just wanted to be balanced,” said WSU offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy. “When we’re at our best, we’re balanced.”

Chief among the crimson alumni who had a completely lousy night was Wulff.

His program needed this victory; he needed this victory.

At midweek, Wulff chanced a look at the big picture and the miles he believes the Cougars have come since his dreary early years.

“I like where this team is and where the culture is,” he said. “I’ve been around championship teams, and in this program, internally, we have all the right things in terms of work ethic, our commitment now, our understanding of what it takes now.”

I’m less inclined to think of the night as a referendum on the program than a matter of a youngish team not realizing — or being made to realize — that you have to bring it week after week.

Especially when the other guys might be smarting from last year’s loss, symbolically punctuated when WSU’s C.J. Mizell tackled Quizz Rodgers far out of bounds for a personal foul.

But make no mistake, it was a brutally inept performance by WSU, especially on defense.

“We gotta flush this thing,” said defensive coordinator Chris Ball.

Nobody argued that it’s deserving of being flushed.

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

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