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WSU toughens up


COUGARS

We've had a chance to talk with Paul Wulff and get his read on yesterday's defeat. On the link is our follow story and our look back. Read on.
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• Here's the story ...

PULLMAN – It showed throughout Saturday's game.

The Washington State Cougars, the 90-pound weaklings of the Pac-10 last season, aren't about to get sand kicked in their face any longer.

They haven't morphed into Charles Atlas just yet, but they're not the pasty guy in horned-rimmed glasses anymore either.

"We know playing in the Pac-10 we've got to be physical," said WSU coach Paul Wulff on Sunday, looking back at the 27-6 loss at USC. "It's a huge priority for us."

Last year in Pullman, the Trojans made WSU look more like a high school squad, pushing them around Martin Stadium en route to a 69-0 rout, one of the Cougars worst defeats ever.

When USC pushed this time, the Cougars pushed back.

"We've come a remarkably long ways in one year to improve in that area," Wulff said. "We're not where we want to be, but we've made some huge strides. Playing USC, another run-orientated team (the work is) helping us."

That being said, it was the play of true freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel that elicited the most interest after the game. The questions continued Sunday. Asked whether the starter at Oregon (3-1, 1-0 in the Pac-10) this week would be Tuel, who was 14 of 21 for 130 yards in his first collegiate appearance, or sophomore Marshall Lobbestael, Wulff didn’t have an answer.

"We haven't named one officially," he said. "We'll have a better idea and we'd like to have that by (today)."

Lobbestael, who led WSU (1-3, 0-2) to the overtime victory against SMU, was 2 of 9 for 14 yards in five early series against USC.

"I thought early on our protection was not good," Wulff said. "Marshall took some unnecessary hits that shouldn't have happened.

"That was kind of a disadvantage for him early."

Lobbestael was sacked four times, as was Tuel. However, Tuel avoided a handful more, running for 51 yards either on planned runs or scrambling when plays broke down.

The Cougars offensive line, already down two starters, looks to be even thinner coming up.

Starting guard B. J. Guerra (knee) and Zack Williams (ankle) are expected to be out again. They might be joined on the sidelines by another starter, tackle/guard Steven Ayers, who suffered an ankle injury against USC and is "highly questionable" for Saturday, according to Wullf.

"We're trying to work though that one right now," said Wulff, mentioning Joe Eppele as the probable replacement for Ayers.

The defense will also be without a key inside player.

Tackle Josh Luapo was helped off Saturday after suffering a knee injury, the severity of which will be determined by an MRI today. No matter the diagnosis, Wulff doesn't expect to have the 6-0, 311-pound run stopper back any time soon.

But that won't change the emphasis on toughness. The Cougars' progress in that area was even noticed by USC coach Pete Carroll, who expressed his opinion to Wulff after the game.

"Within our football program, we know we're making a lot of progress," Wulff said. "But to have somebody in the football world, who sees film every day, understands football, (say something), it definitely has more meaning to us."

•••

• And here is the look back ...

USC 27, WSU 6

• High point of the game

When Jeff Tuel ran onto the Coliseum turf with 8 minutes, 35 seconds left in the first half, he became WSU's first true freshman to play quarterback there since Drew Bledsoe. And his first throw was Bledsoe-like. Or Bledsoe-lite if you prefer. Facing a third-and-4 from his 31, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Tuel had trouble reading the signals from the sideline and had to call time out. When play resumed, he stepped back and rifled a bullet to tight end Tony Thompson, who had less than a step on linebacker Jordan Campbell on the out pattern. It may have been just a 5-yard completion, but the confidence with which it was delivered, the speed of the ball, the small hole it found, all point to Tuel's talent and chance for success.

• Low point of the game

As the first quarter wound down, the Cougars were holding their own, nothing at all like last year's 69-0 debacle. But a quick stretch ensured defeat. It started with Matt Barkley's touchdown strike to Brice Butler in the left corner of the end zone. It ended with Barkley finding Damian Williams for a 57-yard touchdown despite being knocked on his back by an onrushing Travis Long. On both, the WSU defenders were trailing badly as the ball found its mark. In-between was an embarrassing onside kick pulled off by USC kicker Jacob Harfman when WSU's return team lost focus. It took only 9 seconds for the score to go from 6-0 to 20-0.

• A pat on the back

Special-team lapses put the Cougar defense in a lot of holes, with short field leading directly to all four USC touchdowns. But early in the fourth quarter, when Logwone Mitz and Tuel misfired on a handoff and handed the Trojans the ball at WSU's 19, the defense stepped up. The group already had one goal-line stand, though Rhett Ellison did drop a sure touchdown on fourth down. This time, however, after a first-down incompletion from the 5, the Cougars corralled C.J. Gable three consecutive times on running plays to deny another score.

• Needs fixing

We could single out the special team coverages, but instead we highlight a key factor going forward. Washington State has to pass protect better, especially if Tuel is going to play. The freshman can escape pressure with his feet, but one blow could shorten his season. Protecting him and Marshall Lobbestael is a priority. Giving up eight sacks, which WSU did Saturday, isn't good enough. Steven Ayers, who started at guard against USC after playing tackle in the first three games, went down with an ankle injury Saturday and probably will be out for this week.

Three unanswered questions

• Is it Tuel's time? Now that Tuel's redshirt has been used for this year, it's time to let him play. That's obvious. But what's best for the Cougars' future, playing him every down or using him in situations designed to his best advantage? The former gives the coaches more video to evaluate going forward and gives him the most opportunity for growth – if he stays healthy. The latter decreases both of the previous positives, of course, but also lessens the chance of injury.

• Were the penalties a foreshadowing or an aberration? The first three games, the Cougars averaged five penalties a game, down about 30 percent from last season. But against the Trojans, WSU was hit eight times for 42 yards. Either it was a flag-happy officiating crew or, like what happened often last season, the Cougars were beaten physical and had to grab and hold to catch up. The fact four of the flags were for false starts batters the "beaten physically" thought. And having USC cited for 13 penalties argues for the "flag-happy" crew.

• Can the Cougars start fast in Autzen? Walking off the field Saturday night, senior linebacker Andy Mattingly expressed disappointment over the defense's poor start – again. That's been this group's M.O. all season: Struggle early, adjust and play much better after halftime. Until WSU comes out of the gate on fire, puts the pressure on the opponent and silences or energizes the crowd – depending on the venue – it won't win against Pac-10 caliber opponents.

•••

• That's it for now. We'll be back in the morning with our final look at the game and links from around the conference. Until then …




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Vince Grippi
Vince Grippi is a freelance local sports blogger for spokesman.com. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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