SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) – Washington State is struggling to show improvement under third-year coach Paul Wulff, and the battle gets tougher this Saturday against No. 20 Southern California.
No Pac-10 team has a better record against WSU than the Trojans (3-0), who have won 85 percent of the games since the first in 1921, including the past seven in a row. But these Trojans, banned from postseason play for NCAA violations, are not the USC of old. They’ve struggled to beat Hawaii, Virginia and Minnesota.
Wulff said the Cougars (1-2) are feeling good about the game, which is the Pac-10 opener for both teams.
“I think they have confidence they can come in and be successful in this football game,” Wulff said Tuesday of his team. “We’ve got the right attitude.”
Last year, the Cougars lost 27-6 in Los Angeles, but gave up just one touchdown over the final three quarters. That game was the debut for freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel, now the WSU starter.
“I hope and believe it’s going to be better,” Wulff said.
Through the first three games, Tuel is completing nearly 55 percent of his passes for 700 yards, with five touchdowns and just one interception.
“He’s played extremely well,” Southern Cal coach Lane Kiffin said. “He’s very efficient.”
The Cougars played a good first half against SMU last weekend, and the teams were tied 14-14 at halftime. But SMU scored 21 unanswered points in the second half for a 35-21 win.
Despite the loss, the game marked the first time WSU had scored a first quarter touchdown on the road since 2008, and was the first time since 2007 that WSU did not trail at halftime against an FBS opponent.
That qualifies as improvement for a program that is 3-22 the past two seasons.
Washington State will need a rare 60-minute effort to have a chance against even a depleted Southern Cal. The Trojans average 32 points per game, and will be facing a defense that has allowed 40 per game so far.
The Trojans’ offense is led by quarterback Matt Barkley, among the nation’s leaders in passing efficiency. Kiffin is still looking for a leader to emerge among four running backs. Marc Tyler and Allen Bradford have each posted 100-yard games.
“They have not separated themselves as we had hoped,” Kiffin said.
But the Trojans average nearly 200 yards rushing per game, double what WSU averages.
The defensive secondary continues to be a problem for the Trojans, as teams are gaining 291 yards per game through the air against them.
“We’re going to be able to do some things,” Wulff said of his aerial attack.
Freshman receiver Marquess Wilson already has four receptions of 40-plus yards in the first three games, and gained 134 yards against SMU.
Beating the Trojans has never been easy for WSU. Southern Cal leads the all-time series 57-8-4, and handed the Cougars the worst loss in program history, 69-0, the last time they were in Pullman in 2008.