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And in that corner... the Washington State Cougars

It’s got to be tough right now for Washington State Cougar fans. Outside of an overtime victory against SMU, things have been pretty bleak this season for the Cougs. If you take a look at the national stats, it’s not too hard to figure out why Wazzou has been struggling. They’ve got a spot in the bottom ten teams in just about every statistical category across the board, minus punting, where Reid Forrest is averaging almost 44 yards per punt.

Sean Hawkins has been covering Washington State football since 2004. He’s seen plenty of dark skies, and hopefully he’s channeling his inner-Harvey Dent right now. (Not with the Two-Face thing, but with the “the night is always darkest just before the dawn,” attitude.) He’s written at FanHouse covering Pac-10 football, and headlines the staff over at the aptly named WSU Football Blog, so if anyone has a pulse for this football team, it’d be him.

We exchanged a few questions and answers (some fairly long questions and answers) and here’s what this Saturday’s game looks like from his corner.

Inside the Irish: So it’s been a tough season. What’s morale like for Cougars fans?

Sean Hawkins: It has been a tough season-and-a-half if you want to know the truth. It started in ’08 with some epic losses (69-0 vs. USC, 66-3 vs Cal, 63-14 vs. Oregon). There has been some improvement in ’09, but with unbelievable injury issues, and an alarming drop in depth and game-ready talent has all played a part in a 3-17 stretch since the beginning of 2008. Overall, there has been some wavering optimism, not all that surprising given the struggles. But the hardcore fans have hung in there. They know and understand the situation when Paul Wulff took over the program, and it has become painfully clear on a weekly basis that there is a long way to go!

ITI: Where did it all go wrong? Do you go back to Mike Price leaving?

SH: Price’s departure was a huge blow to a program that finally looked like it was turning the corner. In 2002, WSU won the Pac-10 (the last Pac-10 team other than USC to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl), but that season was the first time in Price’s tenure that the program had consecutive winning seasons. We all know what happened next - Price bolted for a date with Destiny in ‘Bama, and is still unbeaten as the head coach of the Crimson Tide.....but the problem was leaving the program in the hands of Bill Doba.

At the time it all went down, Doba looked like the right move. Many key players were coming back in 2003, and Doba was widely respected in the coaching ranks. Doba is a fantastic human being, classy and gracious all throughout his tenure. But he wasn’t exactly the head coach to keep things going long-term. Some of this were terrible personal issues as his wife Judy lost a long, draining battle with cancer. But Doba had been an assistant coach for decades, and suddenly was thrust into being the man to keep the program on the upswing. Long term, it just didn’t work out, and started to really fall apart at the end. Not only did they miss on some big recruiting targets, but academics suffered, and WSU paid dearly with a BCS-high 8 scholarships lost due to the NCAA APR rule. Even worse, there were a reported 25 arrestable offenses by players during Doba’s final 18 months as head coach. So back to your question? It really did start with Price’s departure, but you have to combine his departure with the fact that the program wasn’t left in the best hands for long-term success.

ITI: Is Paul Wulff the man for the job?

SH: The verdict is still out on this one. First, one must appreciate the backstory of Paul Wulff.He is one of our own, a former center on the team in the late 80’s. He played under Jim Walden, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price, and was a good, tough player who got by on smarts and grit instead of raw talent. He has been through the Pullman experience as a player, and many believe he knows what it takes to build a winner at WSU. He has had a lot of personal tragedy of his own, losing his mother at an early age to murder, a murder in which his own father was the prime suspect until the day he died. They never did find her body, and the crime went unsolved. Later in his life, Wulff lost his first wife to cancer. So he has dealt with a considerable amount of tragedy that no man should have to experience in his life, and all at a fairly young age.

Wulffisregarded as a man of high character, and he has gone to great lengths toinstalla tough, structured, disciplined program that is beginning to take shape. Several first-and-second year players are moving up the depth chart, as coach Wulff has put together some very good recruiting classes. The hardcore fan believes in the long-term approach of building the program up with years of strong recruiting classes, where they can put together layers and layers of depth and, ultimately, compete for postseason play on a yearly basis.

That said, there is a contingent that believes this may not work out. The naysayers will point out that while Wulff was successful in the Big Sky conference prior to coming to WSU, winning a fewconferencetitles as well as coach of the year honors on multiple occasions, well, he hasn’t yet shown he can do it on the BCS level. And the way they have lost some games, where they have been absolutely buried early and often, has turned off some of the fan base.

Some describe the situation as a little uneasy, as Wulff has intimated on more than one occasion that the former coaching staff shouldshouldermuch of the blame for the team’s current struggles. Meanwhile, WSU is in the final stages of a fundraising campaign that would complete a phase III renovation of Martin Stadium, giving WSU much-needed revenue streams with premium seating to help them maintain their standing in the Pac-10.Go to for more! Operators are standing by. :) But they aren’t there yet. While it looks promising, some of the losses on the fieldcombined with a brutal economyhaven’t exactly helped the fundraising cause off the field.

The true measure of Wulff will be what the team does in 2011. By then, his first tworecruiting classes will be upperclassmen, and then it will be fair to judge his abilities as a BCS coach. But we just aren’t there yet. ITI:The Irish have done a very nice job making freshman quarterbacks look good. Do you expect Jeff Tuel to do the same? What WRs will be putting up monster numbers this week for the Cougs?SH: Jeff Tuel was a fantastic find by the WSU coaching staff. Tuel didn’t even start at QB until his senior year in high school, but he burst onto the scene with an impressive combo ofmobility anda strong, accurate arm. The true frosh turned a lot of heads during fall camp, and combined with the struggles of the QB’s ahead of him, Tuel was the starter by the end of September.

As to what he will do this Saturday? It is still hard to tell. Tuel’s experience has been 1) some success in garbage time vs. USC, 2) a disasterous start at Oregon where he didn’t even make it out of the first quarter, 3) a run-for-your-life performance vs. ASU, and finally, 4) a breakthrough performance vs. Cal where he threw for 354 yards with two Td’s and zero turnovers.

A huge issue early in Tuel’s play were some major injury problems on the offensive line. The Cougs’ lost three starters up front, replaced by young, not-ready-for-prime-time players. However, vs. Cal last week, a couple of capable offensive linemen in Zack Williams and Steven Ayers returned to action. Their presence helped keep young Tuel upright and able to not only makes some good reads, but stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball to the right players at the right time.

As to his weapons, well, they are young, young, young! Jared Karstetter is one starter, a tall, strong sophomore wehope will turn intoJeff Smardzjilla, minus the mullet of course. True frosh Gino Simone was the top recruit in the state of Washington last year, and is emerging asoneof Tuel’s favorite targets. Newcomer Johnny Forzani, a junior transfer from Canada who never even played high school football, has become the primary deep target. He set a Pac-10 record with a 99-yard TD vs. ASU, and hauled in a gorgeous 68-yard score last week vs. Cal. It is a good, productive, young base of wideouts that has the fans excited for what is to come.

ITI: Is this game a big deal for Wazzou? Does going to San Antonio and playing Notre Dame move the needle for fans and players or is this just another game? SH:Absolutely moves the needle! They will be sky-high for this one, playing on national TV against the most storied program in college football. This will be the closest to a bowl game that these kids will experience for some time, so they will definitely be JACKED for this one! ITI:If you were playing the probability game, what are the chances WSU walks out a winner? SH:Slim to none. Sure, it’s possible, I mean who thought Syracuse could win @ Notre Dame last year (sorry)? But see, Vegas has this thing at Notre Dame giving 30. Those guys tend to know what they are doing. It is their mortgage riding on being right more times than not! I can’t imagine 30-point dogs come out a winner too often? ITI:What’s the recipe for an upset? SH:Turnovers and a fast start would be probably the only way an upset could go down. WSU has improved in the takeaway department from last year, now ranking among the Pac-10 leaders in interceptions and fumble recoveries. But the slow starts are a huge problem, one they haven’t come close to figuring out. WSU hasn’t scored a TD in the first quarter of any game this year, and you have to go back to almost a year ago to when they actualy hit paydirt in the first 15 minutes (vs Arizona, 11/8/08).

I think it would take something shocking, like a lightning-quick score or two early, combined with some Irish mistakes, giving WSU some confidence. And Notre Dame is going to have to come out flat. But you just never know what 18-22 year olds are going to do on a weekly basis.It’s probably easy to assumeNotre Dame won’t be taking WSU seriously, so, who knows.

If you’ve made it this far, be sure to check out our Q&A over at the WSU Football blog where we discuss hard-hitting topics like JC’s future with the Irish, the state of the Irish passing defense, Armando, Rudy, Te’o, and Kyle, as well as the Charlie Weis hot-seat debate... I even break tradition and give a prediction for the first time this season.