For Sturdy and Ball, decisions paying off

TODD STURDY

PULLMAN – Todd Sturdy and Chris Ball earned their college degrees more than two decades ago, but some Washington State football fans are convinced that Sturdy and Ball have suddenly become a whole lot smarter.

Such is the fate of an offensive coordinator (Todd Sturdy) and defensive coordinator (Chris Ball) when their team starts 3-1 after three seasons filled with losses.

WSU's defenses ranked among the nation's worst from 2008-10, and Ball says it was only natural to occasionally have doubts about some of his coaching and recruiting decisions.

"In these types of situations, you always question yourself," said Ball, also WSU's assistant head coach. "Paul (head coach Paul Wulff) was great through it. He didn't point fingers. He was very supportive."

The play-calling of Sturdy and Ball, two longtime college coaches, is drawing far less criticism from fans than in the past. The coaches are quick to point out that they're working with better, more experienced players.

"We've got more kids who have done it more often," Sturdy said.

"We're older, more mature," Ball said. "Physically, we're stronger."

After last Saturday's dramatic victory at Colorado, senior quarterback Marshall Lobbestael praised Sturdy for calling the game-winning play.

Sturdy noticed that safety Anthony Perkins was biting on inside cuts by receivers. That's exactly what happened when Marquess Wilson blew past Perkins and cornerback Greg Henderson to haul in a 63-yard bomb from Lobbestael with barely a minute left.

"We hadn't run that particular play in a long time," Sturdy said. "I think maybe last spring."

So, Coach, why did you call that play with the game on the line?

"I don't know why," he said. "It was in my mind but it wasn't in my mind. "Then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Yeah. That's what we've got to do to that kid.'"

On defense, Ball mixed things up expertly at Colorado. WSU would have held Colorado to less than 300 yards if not for a late, 52-yard run by star running back Rodney Stewart. Senior linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis raised havoc in Ball-ordered blitzes.

Like Wulff, Sturdy and Ball have preached patience since they arrived in Pullman after the 2007 season. Recruiting had tailed off badly; confidence, work ethic and experience were in short supply; and the combination of attrition and classroom performance resulted in the NCAA docking the Cougars eight scholarships before the new staff coached their first game.

How bad were the 2008 Cougars? Well, it could be argued that WSU's 2-11 record was misleadingly good, since an average game that year resulted in a 44-13 loss and a 443-242 gap in total yards.

How good are the 2011 Cougars? Well, the Cougars are convinced they should be 4-0, since they've outscored teams by an average margin of 45-24, and they've outgained rivals by an average of 519-362 yards.

Cynics point out that the latter portion of WSU's schedule, including games with No. 7 Stanford and No. 9 Oregon, appears far more challenging than the first.

Regardless, the Cougars rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring, total offense and passing (379 yards per game) despite losing starting quarterback Jeff Tuel to a broken collar bone early in the season opener. Tuel might be used in a reserve role this week.

Defensively, WSU ranks in the middle of the pack in a number of national statistics – and stand 21st in quarterback sacks with 2.8 per game – despite having only one senior starter on defense.

Ball and Sturdy say the Cougars have plenty of room for improvement, but the coaches go into Saturday's road game with UCLA (ROOT, 7:30 p.m.) with more realistic hopes for success than the past three years.

"There were some long days," Ball said. ‘"Man, is this even right? Where are we going?' But, we stayed on line, and it's starting to pay off."

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