WSU could be on pace for third straight 10-win season

Updated: October 9, 2003, 2:58 AM ET

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Gone is Mike Price, the coach who rebuilt Washington State's football fortunes before leaving for an ill-fated stint at Alabama.

Gone, too, are Jason Gesser, Rien Long, Marcus Trufant and other stars who helped the Cougars post two straight 10-win seasons before losing to Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl last January.

Left behind was a bunch of rambunctious overachievers who, at the season's midpoint, have the No. 12 Cougars poised to defend as Pacific-10 Conference champions.

There are still a lot of roadblocks, but as the team enjoys a bye this week, coach Bill Doba is able to assess what has been and what lies ahead.

"We're doing well, I think, and about where we expected to be," Doba said this week, assessing his first six games as a college head coach.

"I think defensively, we're doing as well or better than we thought we would," Doba, a former defensive coordinator, said. "Offensively, we knew we would be inexperienced on the offensive line and with the quarterback.

"(Fifth year senior) Matt Kegel has been around four years, but there's still nothing like experience. He's progressing about the way we expected."

Doba also is pleased with the play of his special teams, particularly kickers Drew Dunning and Graham Siderius and punter Kyle Basler.

Dunning leads the nation in field goals, hitting 18 of 20 attempts this season.

Doba's team leads the nation in turnover margin (plus 2.7 per game) and is first in the conference in scoring defense, pass efficiency, field goals made, time of possession and scoring.

The Cougars (5-1, 2-0) are second in scoring offense (206 points, 34.3 per game); passing offense; kickoff returns; punting; rushing offense; total offense; and pass defense efficiency.

The Cougars were questionable to begin the season because Kegel was replacing the record-setting Gesser at quarterback, and defensive tackle Rien Long, the Outland Trophy winner, and All-Pac-10 cornerback Marcus Trufant were headed to the NFL.

Offensively, the Cougars have had uneven performances, but have been bailed out by the defense, which hasn't missed a beat since last year.

WSU's defense is one of the best since the Palouse Posse of 1994, which had four starters drafted into the NFL.

"This defense runs to the football," Doba said. "There are 11 hats to the ball every play, 11 guys trying to get there as fast as they can."

Senior Tai Tupai has done an excellent job replacing Long at right tackle, while senior Jeremy Williams continues to play well at the left guard spot, Doba said.

At left cornerback, Karl Paymah and Donny Turner have stepped up to replace Trufant, Doba said. At the other corner, Jason David has returned a school-record three interceptions for touchdowns.

After four years as understudy to Gesser, Kegel quietly took over the team last spring and has two fewer passing touchdowns and 305 more passing yards than Gesser had at the same point last season.

Kegel, the Pacific-10 Conference player of the week Sept. 13, has been erratic, but has gained the team's respect.

"He's a leader in more areas than just on the field," Doba said of the 6-foot-2, 235 pound Kegel, who is taller and heavier than Gesser.

"He's not similar to Gesser, other than his leadership qualities," Doba said. "Gesser was quicker in and out of the pocket. Matt's more deliberate in his delivery. He has more arm strength than Gesser."

Wide receivers Sammy Moore, who also serves as a kick returner, and Devard Darling lead a group of talented receivers this season. Running backs Jermaine Green and Jonathan Smith have been injured, but have given the Cougars some rushing yards to take pressure off Kegel.

Big wins over then-ranked Colorado and Oregon moved the Cougars up the AP poll, but the remaining schedule is not going to be easy.

Still ahead are road games at Stanford, No. 9 Southern California and Washington, and Martin Stadium contests hosting No. 24 Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona State.

The Cougars struggled against overmatched opponents New Mexico and Arizona at home, while routing then-ranked Colorado and Oregon and losing to Notre Dame by an overtime field goal on the road.

The schedule "hasn't turned out to be too bad," Doba said. "I'd like to do the Notre Dame game over. ... The way we're playing on the road, I'd just as soon play away."

Can the Cougars repeat as Pac-10 champs?

"There's an old saying, you've got to play one game at a time," Doba said. "The conference championship is always your goal. Last year's team won the Pac-10. This team would, obviously, love to repeat as Pac-10 champions."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index