- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Washington State took its final knee out of victory formation last year at Oregon State, beating the Beavers 31-14, it ended a 16-game conference losing streak. It also gave the Cougars and coach Paul Wulff hope.
The Cougars are 4-4 in their past eight games after winning just four of their previous 34. That is a suggestion of an upward trend.
For Oregon State, things are different. The embarrassing home loss is one of the exhibits from a downward trend. The Beavers, a team in the midst of the 2008 and 2009 Rose Bowl races, have lost nine of 11 extending to last season. Besides the loss to the Cougars, there's also two shutout defeats -- to Stanford and Wisconsin by a combined count of 73-zip-- and season-opening loss to Sacramento State, an FCS team.
Still, the predominant pressure will remain on the Cougars sidelines at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Saturday. It's a win-or-else season for Wulff, and the 1-5 Beavers represent the best opportunity on the remaining schedule to win. The Cougars are slight favorites to do so.
Wulff believes his team already has played "some pretty dang good football."
"Our football team is drastically improved," he said. "All I can say is where we were a year ago and where we are today, we've come a long, long ways."
Oregon State coach Mike Riley, while receiving heavy criticism of late, is not under the same pressure. His success in 11 years leading the Beavers has earned him some win-equity. And the notoriously upbeat and gracious coach isn't showing signs that his chronic optimism is cracking.
"I don't think we are at our best yet, which is encouraging to me," he said. "I'm excited to play again and see these guys continue to grow."
Of course, Riley doesn't live in fantasy land. For one, he remembers what happened against the Cougars last year.
"Aside from the fact that they outplayed us in almost every phase, the quarterback running killed us," he said.
That would be the 79 yards Cougars quarterback Jeff Tuel ran for last year, part of 221 yards the Cougars gained on the ground against a hapless defense. Tuel also threw a 33-yard scoring pass.
Tuel will be the first key. This will be his second start since he was knocked out of the season opener -- he didn't start that game either because of illness -- with a fractured clavicle. He was OK in the loss to Stanford last weekend, completing 17 of 30 for 145 yards, but he clearly wasn't yet at his best, and the tough Cardinal defense isn't ideal competition for a rusty quarterback. With a game and a full week of practice to his credit, he might look a lot more like the Tuel of old -- one of the better quarterbacks on the West Coast.
"When he is at full strength, we're a better football team," Wulff said. "We knew there was going to be rust [against Stanford] but we had to get him in there to break some of it off."
That said, it makes sense for the Cougars to test the Beavers' run defense. For one, the Cougars ran well last season against the Beavers. Second, they are a better running team this season -- 126.7 yards per game vs. 91 yards per game in 2010. Third, the Beavers' defense will be without middle linebacker Feti Unga (calf) and outside linebacker Cameron Collins (groin) as well as 334-pound defensive tackle Castro Masaniai (broken fibula). The Oregon State front-seven wasn't great to start with, and those are some pretty big personnel hits.
Given an opportunity to play the "woe's with us" card, Riley declined: "It's football. When something comes up, you adjust," he said.
Woe was with Washington State for three previous seasons. Now, the Cougs appear capable of finishing at .500 and earning a bowl berth, which almost certainly would save Wulff's job.
And for Wulff, who notes his team is "sophomore-dominant," improving to .500 isn't the ultimate goal. The trend that started last season in Corvallis, he indicates, has a better destination.
Said Wulff, "We're definitely moving in a good direction."