TEMPE, Ariz. – Rarely has a college football team with a 2-8 record drawn as much national attention as the Washington State Cougars.
Star wide receiver Marquess Wilson’s decision to quit the team and trash the coaching staff on his way out the door drew headlines from coast to coast.
Wilson’s departure and ongoing school and Pacific-12 Conference investigations into Wilson’s claims of physical and verbal abuse by coaches don’t seem to have affected the Cougars as much as might be expected.
“He made a decision not to be part of this team, and he went his separate way, and that’s fine,” center Elliott Bosch said. “For me, it’s not a distraction. I feel that’s the way a lot of the guys on the team feel.”
“It’s not a distraction,” agreed quarterback Jeff Tuel, who called Wilson, “one of my good friends.”
Wilson is WSU’s career receiving leader and was tops on the team this season. Still, the Cougars posted season highs of 36 points, 457 passing yards and 524 total yards last week in a 44-36 loss to then-No. 17 UCLA in the first game without Wilson.
“Addition by subtraction,” WSU coach Mike Leach called Wilson’s action. “I think that was clearly the case. It was probably long overdue.”
All of WSU’s 37 receptions against UCLA were made by freshmen and sophomores. Sophomore quarterback Connor Halliday, forced into action on a freezing night after Tuel was injured late in the first quarter, overcame a slow start to throw for 330 yards and five touchdowns.
Halliday’s reward? Leach named Tuel the starting quarterback for today’s game against Arizona State, the team that Halliday torched for 494 yards and four touchdowns last November in WSU’s most recent Pac-12 victory.
“We’ve played musical chairs with the quarterbacks the whole year,” Halliday said after the UCLA game, before Leach named today’s starter. “It’s been frustrating as all get-out.”
The latter statement applies to all the Cougars, who have lost seven straight games. Washington State must beat ASU and Washington (next Friday in Pullman) to match last year’s 4-8 overall record and 2-7 Pac-12 mark.
The Cougars say they’ve gained confidence through encouraging performances against the four Top 25 teams they’ve faced this season. Arizona State was ranked earlier, but the Sun Devils have lost four in a row.
“I love the character these guys continue to show,” ASU coach Todd Graham said.
Graham’s comment is interesting, given that he traveled to Tempe, Ariz., in the middle of the night last winter to accept the Arizona State job without meeting with his Pittsburgh Panthers players. He assigned an aide to send players a text message informing them prior to their bowl game that he was leaving after one season.
The Sun Devils need to win one of their two remaining regular-season games (they play rival Arizona next Friday) to gain bowl eligibility.
Like the Cougars, Arizona State has been hindered by a shaky offensive line. Both teams have strong pass rushes.
The Cougars’ past two trips to Tempe have resulted in 31-0 and 42-0 losses. But they hope to ride momentum from their second half last Saturday into today’s game.
Down 37-7 at halftime against UCLA after having four kicks blocked – “I’ve never had four kicks blocked in a year,” Leach said – the Cougars staged a sensational rally after most fans in Pullman left.
“I definitely think there were a lot of people (players) that were finally kind of fed up with what was going on,” linebacker Travis Long said. “We decided to finally start fighting and getting after it.”
Former North Mason High School star John Fullington is expected to make a second straight start at offensive left tackle for the Cougars. He moved from left guard after Gunnar Eklund apparently broke his hand at Utah two weeks ago. Wide receiver Isiah Myers (leg) also is due back.
REGENTS OK PLANS
The WSU regents unanimously approved a $61 million football operations facility at Martin Stadium.
Construction is to start Nov. 26 and the building, which will house offices for coaches, training facilities and locker rooms, is projected to open in 2014.
“This is a game-changing vote and I applaud the regents for understanding its impact on the future of Washington State athletics,” athletic director Bill Moos said in a statement.