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WSU ready to play Oregon


COUGARS

We have a lot for you tonight. On the link you will find the unedited versions of our game day items for tomorrow's paper, plus our advance story. The game starts at 6:15 tomorrow night, so my guess is the stadium will be rocking. Read on.
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• So here's the advance ...

EUGENE – Only about four months after he graduated from Clovis West High in central California, Jeff Tuel is about to enter graduate school.

Forget matriculating as a freshman redshirt. That's over.

And forget about easing into the starting quarterback role for Washington State University.

Tuel will make his starting debut tonight in the West Coast football equivalent of Harvard Law, the University of Oregon's Autzen Stadium.

There, some 54,000 Oregon fans, not to mention the 16th-ranked and 3-1 Ducks, will try to ensure Tuel flunks his first major test.

"He's been on that learning curve," said WSU offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy this week. "He's progressing, he's heading in the right direction. He's getting better each and every week.

"That's what it's about when you're young and playing for the first time."

Ya, but is he ready for Autzen Stadium? Maybe. But, in the long view, it doesn't really matter.

"This is going to be a big test for him," head coach Paul Wulff admitted. "I don't know if he can be tested anymore in terms of distractions and noise.

"It's probably experience that's invaluable. It's only (going to) enable his growth to go forward, which is really a good thing. "

Tuel was named the starting quarterback earlier this week after first senior Kevin Lopina and then sophomore Marshall Lobbestael weren't able to give Sturdy and Wulff enough production from the spot.

In his first appearance, Tuel seemed poised and prepared in his relief role against the then 12th-ranked USC Trojans last Saturday. In a little more than 2 1/2 quarters, Tuel was 14 of 22 for 130 yards and led WSU to its only touchdown, albeit in the game's final minute.

But what he showed in the LA Coliseum convinced Wulff and Sturdy it was his time to start.

"I really like how he plays," Sturdy said. "The tempo he displays and how he operates."

The Cougars (1-3 overall and 0-2 in Pac-10 play) in front of Tuel are probably even more of a question mark.

Due to injuries to the two starting guards, a starting tackle and the main inside reserve, WSU will start two freshmen on the left side – redshirt Tyson Pencer at tackle and true freshman Alex Reitnouer at guard – along with junior Joe Eppele, usually a tackle, at right guard.

But Sturdy doesn't think even an inexperienced offensive line will cause Tuel to revert to the usual freshman deer-in-the-headlights look.

"He's got a presence about him where he's pretty calm," Sturdy said.

•••

• And the game day items ...

WSU game day

Washington State at Oregon

Kickoff: 6:15 p.m., Autzen Stadium

TV: Comcast cable 179 in Spokane

Radio: KXLY 920-AM

• Tale of the tape

Washington State Cougars

Record: 0-2 Pac-10, 1-3 Overall

Coach: Paul Wulff, second season

Oregon Ducks

Record: 1-0, 3-1 Overall

Coach: Chip Kelly, first season

• Trends

Last meeting: 9/27/08

Oregon 63, WSU 14

Last week: WSU lost to USC, 27-6

Oregon defeated Cal, 42-3

Series: Oregon leads 41-38-7

When the Cougars run: The WSU offensive line is banged up. A redshirt freshman, Tyson Pencer, is starting his second game. A true freshman, Alex Reitnouer, his first. A redshirt junior, Joe Eppele, is starting his first game at guard. The Duck rushing defense has been vulnerable (it's eighth in the Pac-10) but Oregon has played some pretty potent offensive teams. And the Ducks fly to the ball out of a bunch of different looks. EDGE: Oregon

When the Cougars pass: New quarterback Jeff Tuel gets probably the toughest first start possible: Facing an Oregon secondary that's coming off a dominating performance against Cal. The Ducks do lose their best defensive back, Walter Thurmond III, to injury but he didn't play against the Bears and Oregon still yielded just 170 passing yards. Add in the Ducks' five sacks last week, and the pressure will be on WSU's freshman quarterback. Did we forget the Autzen Stadium noise? Sorry. EDGE: Oregon

When the Ducks run: Despite all outward appearances – the spread offense run out of the no-huddle – Oregon is a rush-first team. Early in the year the Ducks couldn't do that and the offense sputtered. But the offensive lines has improved and freshman LaMichael James has emerged as the featured back – he's gone over 100 yards the last two games, including an Oregon freshman-record 152 against Utah. WSU's front has done a good job matching up with power running teams, but the Ducks use speed and misdirection more than power. EDGE: Oregon

When the Ducks pass: Two weeks ago Oregon wondered where its passing offense had gone. The Ducks found it against Cal, and tight Ed Dickson was the one yelling "Eureka." The senior, pretty much a non-entity the first three games, caught a career-best 11 passes from Jeremiah Masoli, including three touchdowns. And Masoli, with that safety net available, threw with confidence, completing 21 of 25 passes for 253 yards. The Cougars have struggled this season against teams that spread the secondary and make the safeties cover in space. EDGE: Oregon

Coaching/intangibles: This Oregon team is on one serious roll. And that's never been good for the Ducks' opponents, especially since Chip Kelly took over the offense. The Autzen fans are on a roll as well, with 177 reportedly ejected last week for inappropriate conduct. The only crack in the façade could be the LaGarrette Blount situation, which resurfaced this week after the problem seemed to have been buried for good. EDGE: Oregon

Baseball: The Cougars just announced their schedule this week and once again coach Donnie Marbut is playing an ambitious, travel-heavy nonconference slate. But that's OK, because WSU is coming off an NCAA playoff appearance. The Ducks haven't been in the NCAA tourney for a while, mainly because they just brought back the sport last year. And it showed. Coach George Horton's team finished last in the Pac-10, losing 23 games. It could be a while before Oregon reaches the upper echelon. EDGE: WSU

• 3 things to watch

Keys to today's Washington State-Oregon matchup

1. Oregon's multi-dimensional defense: The Ducks will bring blitzers from a lot of different places out of a lot of different looks. And they will also rush just three and drop eight into coverage. It's up to center Kenny Alfred and tackle Micah Hannam, the two experienced starters up front, and running back Dwight Tardy to identify the scheme and help the rookies get into the right protection. But, remember, when a defense brings people, there are open spaces. If the Cougars can protect, and that won't be easy, there should be receivers running free.

2. The Cougars' ability to cover – and tackle: The Hawaii game was the low point when it came to pass defense for WSU. The Cougars improved against SMU and then, other than two big breakdowns, covered well against USC. But Oregon's ability to put pressure up front with the run coupled with a scheme that tries to force safeties to run with wide receivers, will be a test. The Ducks will catch their passes. When they do, it will be crucial for the WSU back seven to tackle in one-on-one situations. They don't and the Ducks score.

3. WSU's start: A Cougar win would be a colossal upset. But it might be an even bigger upset if WSU opens the game with a bang. The Cougars have come out in slow motion the last three games and its cost them. Now the young team, made even younger by injuries, ventures into one of the more intimidating venues on the West Coast. And it will try to turn that streak of slow starts around.

• 3 names to know

LAMICHEAL JAMES

OREGON RUNNING BACK

A redshirt freshman from Texarkana, Texas, James is compact (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) and fast. Expected to be a situational back when the season started – the Ducks had 1,000-yard rusher LeGarrette Blount returning – he's emerged the last two games as the key component of the offense. His coming out occurred against then-18th-ranked Utah, when James rushed for a UO freshman-record 152 yards on 27 carries. He followed that with 118 yards on 21 carries against Cal. In four games he's rushed for 348 yards and is averaging nearly 6 yards a carry.

JEFF TUEL

WSU QUARTERBACK

Who else today? The true freshman from Clovis, Calif., (a suburb of Fresno), Tuel will make his first start wearing a number (10) most recently worn by four-year starter Alex Brink. From the first days of practice, it was obvious Tuel had some special gifts, most prominent among them a strong, accurate arm. But it's been his grasp of the offense and his ability to make plays outside of the pocket that's moved him to this position. Against USC, Tuel came off the bench to complete 14 of 22 passes for 130 yards. He also ran the Cougars out of trouble many times, saving a sack with his feet. He did, however, make one poor throw at the goal line, costing the Cougars points. He'll be asked to do more of the positives today and to avoid the negative.

JOHN BOYETT

OREGON FREE SAFETY

Another redshirt freshman, Boyett was thrust into action when senior T.J. Ward was injured against Boise State. Boyett, from Napa, Calif., made his first start against Purdue and struggled some but still finished with nine tackles. Against Utah, Boyett's interception killed a drive and his 24-yard return flipped the field. By last week's win over Cal, coach Chip Kelly was praising his veteran-like play. Boyett is tied for second on the team with 24 tackles and, when Ward returns from his sprained ankle, the senior will have competition for the spot.

• This and that from today's game …

The Ducks have outscored WSU 116-21 in their last two meetings. ... The Ducks will be without Walter Thurmond III, who tore knee ligaments on the opening kickoff vs. Cal. Not only was Thurmond the leader of the secondary, with 12 career interceptions, the senior was also Oregon's kick and punt return. ... The last time these teams met in Eugene, a 53-7 Oregon rout, it gave UO a 17-16-4 advantage at home. ... The game will be broadcast today on the Oregon Sports Network. Comcast cable, which doesn't have the franchise in Pullman, will also show the game over its SportsNet channel, 179 in Spokane. Check listings. ... Since just before fall camp opened, the Cougars have lost six players who could help at guard to illness or injury. Kevin Freitag was the first, undergoing foot surgery in the summer. Andrew Roxas was hit with a bout of hepatitis and will miss the season. Zack Williams (high ankle) went down against Hawaii, B.J. Guerra (knee) against SMU and Steven Ayers (ankle) and Brian Danaher (concussion) against USC.

•••

• That's it for tonight. We'll be back in the morning with some thoughts. Until then …




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Vince Grippi





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