Washington State finished another chapter in what is becoming a recent, sordid Seattle-game history Saturday night, losing to Stanford, 55-17, in lousy weather conditions. And the debate lingers: Should the Cougars be playing annually over here?
Bill Moos, the WSU athletic director, has said little about future games at CenturyLink Field, other than that the opener next season is against Rutgers on Labor Day weekend. He had previously said the Cougars planned to bring the Oregon schools to Seattle when that’s WSU’s home game, and on a general level, all we know for sure is that he and president Elson Floyd have supported the concept of a Seattle game in the past.
Here’s what’s getting lost in the debate: Bad football makes for a lot of grousing and second-guessing.
The fact is, it’s seemingly been forever since WSU turned in a really stellar game at CenturyLink, save for a good effort last year before the floodgates opened against Oregon. It’s unreasonable to think that would all change if those games were being played in Pullman, though a true home field would likely help some. Remember, WSU’s composite margin of defeat against Oregon State, Oregon and Stanford the past three years is 86 points — 29 a game.
I think what’s happened is, when the game goes south, as it famously did in a 44-21 defeat to OSU in 2011 that was a turning point against Paul Wulff, fans are more apt to lash out at the whole concept: “What are we doing here, anyway?” So the merits and lack thereof regarding the Seattle game get garbled in the fact the Cougars have just been handed their lunch.
And let’s face it, that’s happened a lot in recent years, not just here but in Pullman.
Let’s review: Under AD Jim Sterk, the practice was for the Cougars to bring in less-than-attractive non-league opponents to Seattle. From 2005-07, those were Grambling State, Baylor and San Diego State. Implicit was the idea that the Cougars were attraction enough, and damn the opponents.
Then, in 2008, Wulff’s first game, the Cougars played a very good Oklahoma State team in Seattle and lost, 39-13, in front of 50,830, which is a pretty healthy crowd on Labor Day weekend, traditionally a tough sell in the Northwest. At that time, there were still relatively positive feelings about the post- Bill Doba regime — and a complete unawareness of the dungeon-dark days that were about to descend on the program.
In 2009, Wulff’s team was simply flattened by Hawaii, 38-20, in a game in which Hawaii receivers ran roughshod through the Cougar defense and it wasn’t nearly that close. That crowd was 42,912, a reflection of the horrific previous season WSU had under Wulff (2008) and the apathy that began to afflict the program. Then came a one-year hiatus in 2010, and the blowouts in league games from 2011-13.
Thus, an equation took shape: Seattle game equals bad experience.
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find, in the 11-game history of the event, the simple combination of an upbeat WSU showing against a good opponent — there aren’t any, unless you count Oregon last year. When the Cougars debuted the game in 2002, in front of 63,588 against Nevada, it succeeded because WSU was coming off a 10-win season and would that year go to the Rose Bowl. Nevada finished 5-7. The next year, the 25-0 shutout of Idaho came against a team that went 3-9.
The Pullman-centric side of the argument would say all this supports their point entirely. But I don’t think you can ascribe consistently sorry outcomes to the fact the game is in Seattle.
I’ll concede when I heard last Monday that WSU had sold only about 35,000 tickets for the Stanford game, it seemed like a low number. I don’t think I accounted sufficiently for the lag effect that keeps disaffected fans from jumping back on board quickly. True, this is an improving program, but it was 12-50 before it upended USC. The overall downturn in Seattle-game attendance (outside of last year’s 60,929 for the Oregon game, aided by Duck fans) is mostly about WSU’s losing ways in recent years.
There’s been some scoffing at the announced crowd of 40,095 for Stanford. No way there were that many people in the house, but I don’t have a problem with officials announcing the number of tickets sold. And I don’t think you can fault people for staying away on a night like that, even if they had pre-purchased tickets.
A final thought: If WSU concludes night games are a detriment to the attendance, then that should be a consideration in scheduling future games. Because clearly, night games are the way of the world in the new Pac-12; WSU will have played five of its first seven at night, and it’s now customary to see three Pac-12 Saturday-night games going concurrently on TV. By the time league play starts, that means you’ve got a 50-percent or better chance of playing at night.
Frankly, I don’t have a strong feeling on whether WSU should play a game here. If it’s demonstrably a financial and emotional boon to WSU in its visibility on the west side, then play it.
But play well.