By John Agovino, Associate College Football Editor
(Sports Network) - The last winning season for the Washington State Cougars was in 2003 (10-3), and since then the squad has regressed. WSU claimed just three overall victories in 2008 and 2009 combined, and while the expectations entering the 2010 season were not high, the hope was that the team could at least take a step in the right direction.
That would not be the case, as the Cougars opened the year with an embarrassing 65-17 loss to Oklahoma State. WSU was able to break into the win column with a narrow decision over Montana State, 23-22.
Following that victory though was a losing skid that resembled ones the Cougars endured the previous two years. After a 35-21 setback to SMU, Pac-10 Conference play began, and league action has been a problem for WSU over the past few seasons. In fact, in the previous two campaigns the Cougars logged just a single conference victory.
Washington State, which went winless in nine Pac-10 matchups in 2009, dropped its first seven such contests in 2010 and those losses came by an average of 21.5 ppg. The 17th straight league loss came against Cal, but the Cougars hung tough, only losing by seven points.
The following game, Washington State finally broke into the win column against a Pac-10 foe, as the Cougars surprisingly defeated Oregon State on the road, 31-14. The win also snapped the team's 16-game road losing skid.
Unfortunately, coach Paul Wulff's squad was unable to make it two in a row, and instead lost to Washington, 35-28, in its finale.
OFFENSE: Nothing has gone right for the Cougars on offense over the past three seasons. In 2008 and 2009, the Cougars averaged a miserable 12.7 and 12.0 ppg, respectively. While last year's numbers were slightly better (19.6 ppg), the offense needs to improve drastically in 2011 for the team to escape the Pac-12 basement.
The offensive line has been a serious area of weakness over the past two years, and the one player that has suffered tremendously from the lack of protection is quarterback Jeff Tuel. He was under center for the majority of the snaps in 2009 and 2010, and in those years the line has allowed 53 and 51 sacks, respectively.
I think we're a lot more physical on the offensive line," said coach Wulff. "We're athletic. We have experience."
That better be the case for Tuel's sake, because the quarterback has taken a beating the past couple of seasons. Despite the lack of protection or a consistent running game, the Tuel still threw 18 touchdown passes, while completing near 60 percent of his throws.
However, the offensive line is not the lone reason for the team's lackluster performance. The inability to run the football with any success has crippled the unit as well. Over the past three years, the Cougars have averaged 2.7, 2.4 and 2.6 yards per rush attempts. Those numbers are astronomically bad and will leave the quarterback in a lot of troublesome situations.
Coach Wulff is hoping redshirt freshman Rickey Galvin will give the Cougars the boost they need out of the backfield. Galvin broke his arm on his first career carry in last year's opener, but he is definitely one of the more talented backs to suit up for Washington State in quite some time.
DEFENSE: Washington State's offense was unable to find any success running ball over the past few seasons, and during that span the defense has been unable to stop the opposition from pounding the ball down their throats. Over the last three seasons the Cougars have surrendered 248, 236 and 220 yards per game on average, but this is another area where Wulff is hoping to see dramatic improvements.
"Our defense I believe has more physical strength than we've had, more team speed than we've had," said coach Wulff. "So the combination of that and more game experience heading into the season than we've had. There is a good chance we will start just one or two seniors on the whole defense, but we have players that have played."
Travis Long is a bit undersized, but he is the best player on the defensive line for the Cougars, and he will be looking to improve on his five sacks from a year ago.
Although the Cougars surrendered 247 ypg through the air in 2010, the team is excited about the return of all four starters. As a true freshman, Deone Bucannon led the team with 84 tackles and is talented enough to earn All- Pac-12 honors. Also expected to perform better is the corner tandem of Daniel Simmons and Nolan Washington.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Just like the offense and the defense, the Cougars also had trouble on special teams last year. Aire Justin took care of punt and kick return duties, but wideout Isiah Barton will likely handle both jobs this fall. Barton averaged 22.1 yards per return, and has the kind of breakaway speed to be a difference-maker.
Placekicker Andrew Furney take over full time for Nico Grasu. Last year, Furney saw some action for WSU, and while he made all 18 of his PATs, he was just 3-of-5 on field goal attempts.
OUTLOOK: The Cougars have won a total of five games over the last three years, and only two have come in league play. There are plenty of starters returning for coach Wulff's club, but Washington State has a long way to go before the team is no longer considered the door mat in the Pac-12.
This year's schedule is manageable for the most part, as the team only has five road matchups, with the toughest coming at Oregon. WSU opens the year with two winnable home games against Idaho State and UNLV. The Cougars also close out the year with two home games, and will take on rival Washington at Qwest Field.
As mentioned, the Cougars are a long way from being relevant in the conference, but they started showing signs down the stretch a year ago that they were improving and that strong play could translate into a couple more wins in 2011.