SEATTLE--The defense was willing, but the offense wasn't able. The Cougs went through three QB's in the first half, and none of them were WSU starter Jeff Tuel. Still, WSU had their chances before the game got away in the second half. After the first shutout since 1964 in the Apple Cup, Paul Wulff revealed one reason why things might be different in '10 -- the likely return of James Montgomery.
After the 30-0 loss Saturday at Husky Stadium, Wulff announced RB James Montgomery likely will return to the program next season -- something that seemed a virtual impossibility a few months ago.
Montgomery was the Cougars' leading rusher when he underwent emergency surgery in September to correct acute compartment syndrome in his left leg -- and he nearly lost the leg. Wulff said Montgomery will still have to undergo surgery on his right knee.
"He has made such unbelievable progress running ... he's come so far so fast that they're very, very encouraged he will be back," Wulff said. "It's wonderful news."
The Cougars on Saturday could have used Montgomery -- or any offensive playmaker, for that matter. With true freshman Jeff Tuel unavailable because of a subluxed right kneecap suffered Nov. 7 at Arizona, the Cougars once again turned to senior Kevin Lopina.
EVEN WITH AN abysmal running game that produced just 5 yards on six first-quarter carries, WSU managed to stay in the game -- and looked like they might even take an early lead thanks to some creative play-calling by offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy.
"We had a great game plan," sophomore quarterback Marshall Lobbestael said. "The coaches did a great job of getting us ready. They did exactly what we thought they were going to do and we just didn't execute."
With first-and-10 at the UW 34-yard line, Lopina pitched the ball to Dwight Tardy, who promptly tossed it back to Lopina. True freshman wide receiver Gino Simone found himself open in the end zone, but he misjudged and then dropped Lopina's pass. The drive -- and the Cougars' prospects -- only seemed to fall back from there.
"I blew it," Simone said. "I put us in a huge hole. We would've been up 7-0 at that point with a lot of momentum. It's a catch that I've made 100 times."
Lopina, who faced consistent pressure before he was knocked out of the game on a second-quarter sack by defensive end Darrion Jones, was intercepted by linebacker Mason Foster late in the first quarter. He was replaced the first time by Lobbestael, who also was later knocked out with concussion-like symptoms -- he was cleared to return at halftime -- and later by sophomore Dan Wagner.
THE INTERCEPTION GAVE the Huskies (4-7, 3-5) possession at the WSU 13 yard line, but they were held to a 24-yard field goal by Erik Folk.
IF THERE WAS a positive out of this game for WSU, it would be the defensive effort in the first half.
Apart from a 50-yard touchdown pass from Jake Locker to Jermaine Kearse in the second quarter, the Cougars' defense kept WSU in the game in the first half. That at least was progress for a team that has been outscored 173-6 entering the game. UW produced a pedestrian 187 yards of total offense in the first half.
Sophomore middle linebacker Mike Ledgerwood, who began the season behind Louis Bland and Alex Hoffman-Ellis at the position, finished with a team-high 14 tackles and was a force early on.
"I was in the zone the whole time," Ledgerwood said. "I just wanted to play for those seniors ... that's what was going through my head the whole time."
It just was not enough.
A 46-yard field goal by Folk gave the Huskies a 13-0 halftime lead and they extended it to 20-0 in the third quarter on a 1-yard run by Chris Polk.
LOCKER, WHO IS projected as the No. 3 overall pick by "draft guru" Rob Rang if he bypasses his senior year, was erratic. He completed 16 of 28 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. He also was intercepted by Xavier Hicks. But Locker also had 94 yards -- much of it in the second half and including a 15-yard touchdown scramble in the final period -- on 10 carries.
"The difference in the game, guys, is No. 10 on their team," Wulff said afterwards. "Jake Locker, he runs it, throws it, runs it, throws it. He's almost a one-man show out there. That was the key to the game."
But Locker still had far more talent around him. Players such as Polk and Kearse stepped up after each was shut down early.
Polk finished with a game-high 130 yards on 25 carries -- he had 32 yards on 11 carries in the first two quarters. Kearse dropped two easy passes in the first quarter. He finished with 94 receiving yards on four receptions. And WSU just couldn't get anything going on offense.
"That allowed them to keep the defense on the field, and I know the defense was getting a little tired," Hicks said. "We faced adversity and I think we competed every play."
COUPLE THE TALENT deficit with poor protection and the use of three different quarterbacks -- Lopina, Lobbestael and Wagner -- and too many dropped passes gave WSU the makings of its first shutout in the series since a 14-0 loss in 1964 in Spokane.
"Obviously, our options were the guys we played," said Wulff, adding that Tuel likely would be out for two more weeks if the season continued. "Dan Wagner came in there and did a good job at the end of the first half. We got some first downs running the ball.
"That was our option. After that it would be Jeffrey Solomon in if Marshall wasn't going to be able to come back."
THE COUGARS ALSO missed the opportunity to split the decade with UW. WSU, which now trails the Huskies 65-31-6 overall, won five games against its rival in the '50s. The Cougars, who beat the Huskies four times this decade, also were playing to win their third straight game against the Huskies for the first time.
WSU can only hope the program, which went winless in Pac-10 play for the first time since 1998, can rebound as well it did then. The Cougars had two more losing seasons before three consecutive 10-win seasons.
But most of the redshirting players are on the defensive side, which means WSU will have to count on players such as Simone, Tuel and running back Carl Winston -- all true freshmen -- developing.
"It's a bright future," Simone said. "I believe that wholeheartedly. The reason that I'm at Washington State is because I believe in the staff and where they're going. I think everyone -- if they stay with us -- will be really pleased."
Wulff said that view is common among the young players.
"You ask them to a man and they're ecstatic about the future of Cougar football," he said. "You ask them and they'll tell you they're going to bring the Cougars back to the Rose Bowl. There's that kind of confidence within this football team."
Bland, defensive tackle Josh Luapo, safety Jay Matthews and Montgomery all will miss spring practice, said Wulff. But he noted that number is a much lower number than the two dozen players -- yes, two dozen -- who were out after offseason surgeries during his first year.
Tardy, who led the Cougars in rushing for a fourth straight year, finished with 2,241 career rushing yards. That ranks seventh in program history.
Junior punter Reid Forrest broke WSU's single-season record for most punting yardage. He had 3,718 yards on 86 attempts. George Martin previously held the record with 3,689 yards in 1994.