PULLMAN – The Washington State Cougars, minus their best player and mired in controversy, have three games left in yet another season that will end without a bowl appearance.
Do not, however, label the last three games as meaningless. Not for Jeff Tuel, anyway.
“Why would I play the game if I didn’t want to win?” the senior quarterback asked. “It’s for the love of the game. It’s who I am. It’s why I play the football game.
“Play to win. Simple as that.”
The Cougars, who may start as many as eight freshmen tonight, are 161/2-point underdogs against 17th-ranked UCLA at Martin Stadium (7:30, ESPN2). Freezing temperatures are in the forecast, but snow showers are supposed to end in the morning.
All-time Cougars receiving leader Marquess Wilson has been suspended for at least one game. Some fans and media wonder if fiery, highly demanding coach Mike Leach has lost the respect of his players.
“I don’t know,” Leach said. “The thing is, we’re not changing.
“This isn’t a democracy. We don’t say, ‘Hey, you 125 guys, so how do you want practice to be and what direction do you want this or that to go?’”
When asked if players respect the coaches as much as they should, Tuel said, “That’s a tough question. I’m not in the guys’ heads. As far as I know, they respect the coaching staff.”
Brett Bartolone, one of three true freshmen receivers expected to start for WSU tonight, said “you definitely had to show some heart out there to get though” the grueling Sunday conditioning session ordered by Leach after a 49-6 loss at Utah. Wilson was suspended after walking out of the workout early.
“He’s a tough coach,” Bartolone said of Leach. “He just wants to get the most out of his players.
“If you’re a hard worker and give 100 percent effort, it shouldn’t be any problem.”
There were obvious problems with effort at Utah, which prompted Leach to rip into his team afterward.
A similar performance against UCLA could be disastrous. The Bruins can be dominant on both sides of the ball. They’re averaging 43 points per game during a three-game winning streak.
The Cougars have scored a total of 40 points the past three games. They’ve lost six in a row since posting their lone win over a Football Bowl Subdivision team eight weeks ago at lowly UNLV.
UCLA plays arch-rival USC next week, but Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley said his team is not looking past the Cougars.
“USC shouldn’t be in our heads, and it isn’t,” Hundley said.
The Cougars, last in the nation in rushing, have finished with negative rushing yards in four of their nine games. That includes the past two, which leading rusher Teondray Caldwell missed with an apparent concussion. Caldwell is back, but offensive tackle Gunnar Eklund (hand) and wide receiver Isiah Myers (leg) are doubtful. Wide receiver Gino Simone (leg) returns after missing one game. Special-teams player Feddie Davey (knee) is out for the year. … Wilson’s high school coach, Darren Bennett, said he fears Wilson might bypass his senior year to turn pro. Bennett said Wilson currently lacks the size and strength to play in the NFL and could lose “millions of dollars” by leaving early.
UCLA (7-2 OVERALL, 4-2 PACIFIC-12) AT WASHINGTON STATE (2-7, 0-6)
7:30 p.m., Martin Stadium, Pullman
TV: ESPN2. Radio: 770-AM, 104.3-FM.
The series: UCLA leads, 39-18-1. The Bruins defeated WSU last season, 28-25, in Pasadena, Calif.
What to watch: The Cougars like to think freezing weather on Dad’s Weekend works in their favor against the visitors from Los Angeles, but the fact is, many of WSU’s top players hail from sunny California. Both teams have played somewhat inconsistently under new coaching staffs, partly because of all the freshmen – 16 on the Cougars and a whopping 25 on the Bruins. The best of those has been UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, who can beat you with his arm or his feet. Teammate Johnathan Franklin is one of the nation’s leading rushers. He averages 20 carries and 133.8 rushing yards a game (6.7 yards a carry). WSU, with a weak offensive line, averages 19.8 carries (counting quarterback sacks) and 29.3 rushing yards a game (1.5 yards a carry). All three marks are the nation’s worst. WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel has been sacked 16 times the past two games, and the Bruins have a ferocious pass rush. Jim Mora, a former Seattle Seahawks head coach and defensive coordinator, has his fingerprints all over the UCLA defense in his first year as coach.
The pick: UCLA 35, Washington State 24
All-time UCLA leading rusher ranks among nation’s best with 1,204 yards.
In past 2 games, passed for 562 yards, 7 touchdowns, 1 interception.
Pac-12 tackles leader (87) has 20 solo tackles in past 2 games.
Former running back has 81/2 sacks in first year on defense.
89Travis LongLB6-4245 sr.
National sacks leader earlier this season, he’s been held sack-less past 3 games.
Holds WSU career record for pass completion percentage (61.2).
Tied for third in Pac-12 with 4 interceptions, tied for fourth with 8.4 tackles per game.
In first 2 starts, had 10 catches for 135 yards, 1 touchdown.Howie Stalwick, contributing writer