Oct. 29, 2009

Tim Prister By Tim Prister ’82

Game 8: Washington State (Oct. 31)
Conference: Pac-10
2008 record: 2008 record: 2-11, with the only victories coming against Portland State (48-9) of the FCS and Washington (16-13 in 2 OTs) to finish ninth in the 10-team league.
2009 record: 2009 record: 1-6–Opened with 39-13 loss at Stanford, followed by a 38-20 home loss to Hawaii. Defeated SMU at home, 30-27 in overtime, but have lost four straight since–27-6 at USC, 52-6 at Oregon, 27-14 at home versus Arizona State, and 49-17 at Cal.

Location: Alamodome; San Antonio, Texas
Kickoff: 6:41 p.m. CT
TV Coverage: NBC

Washington State head coach: Former Cougar center Paul Wulff (1985-88) is in his second season as head coach at Washington State in Pullman. Prior to his return to his alma mater, Wulff spent 15 seasons at Eastern Washington of the FCS, where he served as a volunteer assistant offensive line coach for one season, offensive line coach/strength coach for four seasons and offensive coordinator for two seasons before being named head coach in 2000. Eastern Washington was 53-40 under Wulff in eight seasons. His 2004 squad defeated No. 1-ranked Eastern Illinois. Seven of his eight Eagles squads in the Big Sky Conference finished with winning records, including 9-4 in 2004 and 2007.

Series history: Notre Dame and Washington State have met on the field just one time previously. That came in the 2003 season-opener when the Irish overcame a 19-point first half deficit by scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter to claim a 29-26 overtime victory. Nicholas Setta booted four field goals, including the game-winner from 40 yards. Julius Jones and Rhema McKnight scored touchdowns for the Irish.


Nicolas Setta’s 40-yard overtime field goal gave the Irish the 29-26 victory in the only contest with the Cougars.



Glory days: It wasn’t that long ago that the Cougars were one of the powerhouses in the Pac 10. From 2001-03, first under head coach Mike Price and then Bill Doba, Washington State was 30-8 over a three-year span, including a trip to the Rose Bowl as the No. 7-ranked team in the country against No 8 Oklahoma in 2002. In 1997, with Ryan Leaf at quarterback, Price led the Cougars to 10 victories and the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than 60 years.

After Doba won 10 games in ’03, the Cougars slipped to 20-26 over the next four campaigns before the hiring of Wulff.

Making progress: After finishing 2-11 in Wulff’s first season in Pullman, the Cougars are measuring their progress in terms of improvement on the scoreboard, not necessarily the win-loss columns.

So far this season, the Cougars have played five teams in the conference and have improved–sometimes dramatically–compared to last year, when Washington State allowed 570 points in 13 games (43.8 average).

Lost 58-0 at Stanford last year; lost 39-13 at home to Stanford this year. Lost 69-0 at home to USC last year; lost 27-6 at USC this year. Lost 63-14 at home to Oregon last year; lost 52-6 at Oregon this year. Lost 31-0 at Arizona State last year; lost 27-14 at home to Arizona State this year. Lost 66-3 at home to Cal last year; lost 49-17 at Cal this year.

The Cougars lost to those five opponents by a total of 270 points last year compared to 138 points this year. Only Hawaii, which defeated Washington State 24-10 last year, improved upon his margin of victory with a 38-20 conquest. (Note: Hawaii has lost five straight since defeating Washington State on Sept. 12.)

Apple (State) turnovers: The Cougars rank 111th or worse in 10 major offensive and defensive categories and are last in the Pac 10 in rushing offense, total offense, scoring offense, rushing defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense.

But when it comes to forcing turnovers, Washington State truly is one of the best in the country. Through seven games, the Cougars have forced 19 turnovers–six more than they forced in 13 games last year–while maintaining a minus-one turnover margin. They rank second in the Pac 10 in turnovers forced and are tied for 10th nationally. Washington State was a minus-12 in turnover margin through seven games last season.

The Cougars forced Arizona State into six turnovers. They have forced five turnovers in the red zone and have allowed scores on 70 percent of the penetrations into the red zone, which is tied for the most in the Pac 10.

Ranked team drought: With Notre Dame re-entering the top 25 this week following its victory over Boston College, the Cougars will attempt to put a notch in the win column against a ranked team for the first time since 2006. They have lost seven straight to ranked teams and 16 of the last 17. No. 16 Oregon fell to Washington State, 34-32, on Oct. 21, 2006.

From 2001-03, however, the Cougars were 8-6 against ranked foes, including a 28-20 victory over Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl.

First and third quarters: The Cougars’ performance in the first and third quarters this season is noteworthy with opposite results. Washington State did not score its first points of the first quarter until last week against Oregon when Nico Grasu booted a 24-yard field goal with 2:20 remaining. Prior to that, its opposition had scored 105 straight points in the first quarter. All told, Washington State has been out-scored 112-3 in the first quarter this season.

But to Wulff’s credit, the Cougars have fought hard in the second half, despite often trailing by a substantial amount at the intermission. Washington State has out-scored its opponents 36-30 in the third quarter, including 10-7 versus Stanford, 7-0 against Hawaii, 14-3 against SMU, 6-3 versus Oregon, and 7-6 against Arizona State.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, has struggled in the third quarter. The Irish have been out-scored 41-27 in the 15 minutes following halftime. Each of the last three opponents–Boston College (7-0), USC (14-7) and Washington (7-3) has out-scored the Irish in the third quarter. Michigan (7-0) did as well. The only two opponents the Irish have out-scored in the third period (neither team scored in the third quarter at Purdue) were Nevada (7-0) and Michigan State (10-6).

“The one quarter (Washington State has) had success in this year is the third quarter, and we’ve recently had some problems in the third quarter,” Weis acknowledged. “So that will be one of my areas of concern in this game.”

The Irish also have been out-scored in the first quarter, 40-39, mainly on the strength of Michigan’s 14-3 edge. Weis doesn’t want his team to feel any anxiety if the Irish don’t take advantage of Washington State’s first-quarter deficiencies. Yet he knows a quick start is important.

“The one quarter (Washington State has) had success in this year is the third quarter, and we’ve recently had some problems in the third quarter, so that will be one of my areas of concern in this game.”Fighting Irish Head Coach Charlie Weis

“We’re going have to go down there and be ready to go or else we’re going find ourselves in the same game that we’ve been playing in for the last month and a half,” said Weis, referring to the six straight games decided by seven points or less.

Avoiding the trap: Even though the Irish have been installed as heavy favorites against Washington State, Weis doesn’t expect his team to take the Cougars lightly. Notre Dame has something to prove, particularly after taking the last six games down to the wire.

“You can talk about a trap and all those other things, which is the normal verbiage that comes after a big game last week against Boston College,” Weis said. “But there are a number of factors that make our team really enthused going into this game. “This is the first time we’ve gone to one of these neutral site games, and just the intrigue of how this is going to play out is exciting in its own right. No. 2, we have guys from the state of Texas that are pretty fired up about going back and getting an opportunity to play there. No. 3, we’re at the stage of the year now where if we want to do something special, we really need to get better all across the board. We need to get better in every single facet. So this week, our whole point of emphasis is about improving across the board.” The Irish haven’t played a complete game since the 35-0 victory over Nevada in the season-opener, and even in that game, they allowed Wolf Pack running back Vai Taua to rush for 114 yards.

“Obviously, we’ve shown some resiliency at the end of the game, but it’s also apparent that we haven’t played a full 60-minute game across the board either,” Weis said. “This gives us an opportunity to try to do that.

“We’d like to get on top of them early and go hard for the whole game and see if we can’t put a full game together on offense, defense and special teams where you can walk out of the game with everyone gaining confidence.”

Opportunity knocks: Despite Washington State’s recent struggles, head coach Paul Wulff knows the Cougars have an opportunity to raise some eyebrows in a unique neutral site setting.

“Being Halloween and going down to San Antonio will have a certain level of a bowl feel to it for some people because it is a neutral site,” Wulff said. “I think it will have that flavor to it. Being an inexperienced team like we are, it will be a great opportunity for us.” It won’t be easy.

“We’ve got a heck of a challenge on our hands with our defense (trying) to contain them in their passing game and their running game,” Wulff said. “Jimmy Clausen is the best pure passer we’ve seen to date.”

Key match-ups: For the fourth time in eight games, the Irish will face a freshman quarterback. This time it’s Washington State’s Jeff Tuel, who has performed admirably since taking over in the second quarter of the USC game. Tuel completed 14-of-22 for 130 yards against the Trojans and became the starter two games later against Arizona State in a 13-point loss. Tuel completed 11-of-22 for 175 yards against the Sun Devils, including a 99-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Forzani–the longest pass play in Cougar history. Tuel turned in his best performance last week against Cal when he completed 28-of-42 for 354 yards, including another long one (68 yards) to Forzani.

As much as the Irish have struggled against the pass this season, Tuel is in position to do some damage as he shoots to become the third freshman quarterback (joining Michigan’s Tate Forcier and USC’s Matt Barkley) to knock off the Irish this season. Notre Dame, however, would like to take advantage of the 35 sacks (five per game) allowed by the Cougars.

Notre Dame should have its opportunities for success offensively as well. Notre Dame ranks 11th in the country in passing offense and 15th in total offense. Jimmy Clausen is the No. 2 pass efficiency quarterback in the country with 16 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. The Irish are averaging 305.8 yards passing per game while the Cougars are surrendering 284.1 yards passing per game.

Notre Dame’s run defense has been quite stout in recent weeks. The Irish held USC 87 yards under their 208-yard rushing average while limiting Boston College to 85 yards under its 155-yard rushing average. Washington State averages just 2.2 yards per carry. Its leading rusher is Dwight Tardy with just 186 yards in seven games (26.6 per game) and 3.3 yards per carry. Sam linebacker Darius Fleming will try to beef up his team-leading 9.5 tackles for loss.

Fighting Irish/Cougar facts…Notre Dame is tied for fourth in the nation in turnover margin at plus-10. The Irish shot up the charts last week against Boston College by doubling their turnover margin when they forced five against the Eagles while remaining turnover-free on offense. Only Air Force (+18), Rutgers (+14) and Cincinnati (+11) have a better turnover margin than Notre Dame. Cincinnati (four turnovers) is the only team in the country with fewer turnovers than Notre Dame’s five…Since being inserted into the starting lineup three games ago, freshman linebacker Manti Te’o has been averaging 9.0 tackles per game…Golden Tate has had five games of at least 100 receiving yards. No other FBS player has more 100-yard receiving games this season…Safety Kyle McCarthy is tied for third nationally in interceptions with five, which is the most since Tom Zbikowski had five in 2005. Shane Walton’s seven interceptions in 2002 are the most in the last 20 seasons…Notre Dame is 14-0 when playing on Halloween. The last time the Irish played on Halloween was against Baylor in 1998 when Notre Dame claimed a 27-3 victory over the Bears…Notre Dame has four players on its roster from the state of Texas: walk-on wide receiver Derry Herlihy, defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore, offensive guard Chris Stewart and kicker Nick Tausch…Former Irish quarterback/receiver Carlyle Holiday hailed from San Antonio…The last time the Irish played in Texas was 2003 when they fell to Texas A&M in College Station, 24-3. Prior to that, Notre Dame defeated Texas, 27-24, in Austin in 1996–Lou Holtz’s last season at Notre Dame…Thirty-five Irish players will be playing in the Alamodome for the second time. Those 35, including Jimmy Clausen and Armando Allen, participated in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

Washington State punter Reid Forrest ranks 15th in the country with a 43.78-yard punting average. He has nine punts of more than 50 yards…Jeff Tuel’s 354 yards passing against Cal are the second most by a Cougar freshman in school history. Drew Bledsoe holds the record of 385 yards against Arizona in 1990. Tuel also is the second true freshman to start at quarterback for the Cougars, joining Bledsoe…Washington State’s last home game was Oct. 10 versus Arizona State. The Cougars won’t play at home again until Nov. 14 when they host UCLA. The 35 days between home games is the third longest stretch in the nation in 2009, behind Alabama-Birmingham (37 days) and Hawaii (36)…Washington State intercepted two passes for touchdowns against SMU–one each by linebackers Alex Hoffman-Ellis (52 yards) and Myron Beck (67 yards)…When Washington State overcame a 17-point deficit against SMU to record a 30-27 overtime victory, it was the largest comeback by a Cougar squad since 1994 against Cal when they trailed 20-2 in the first quarter and won, 26-23…Washington State has created five turnovers in the red zone, the most by any school in the Pac 10…The Cougar running backs are coached by former Washington State great Steve Broussard…Washington State linebacker Andy Mattingly is a distant relative of former New York Yankee great Don Mattingly.

Tim Prister–Notre Dame’s starting third baseman in 1981-82–is an `82 graduate in his 28th year covering Notre Dame football. He is the senior editor of IrishIllustrated.com after serving 20 years as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Entering the 2009 season, he had attended and reported on 279 straight Notre Dame football games–every one since Lou Holtz’s first in 1986.