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Behind In His Work Cornerbacks Have A Tough Career Path, As Washington State’s Lejuan Gibbons Knows

The quarterback drops back, hesitates briefly and launches the football down the right sideline. The receiver and defensive back are running stride for stride, but only one looks back for the ball.

Moments later, the extra point is good.

Washington State cornerback LeJuan Gibbons knows that feeling all too well, having given up three touchdowns in Saturday’s 35-34 victory over Arizona. It was the worst experience of his young college career.

“I know I’m not a bad player, I’m not a weak link,” Gibbons said Tuesday. “I’m a good corner and a good corner bounces back.” Gibbons gets his chance Saturday night, when the 10th-ranked Cougars put their 7-0 record on the line against 20th-ranked Arizona State in Tempe. The Sun Devils are favored by three points; perhaps oddsmakers expect another shaky effort from Gibbons.

“Basically, I have to clean the slate - take away everything I did from the past six games and start fresh,” said Gibbons, a sophomore and first-year starter.

From the stands or on television, a cornerback’s responsibilities seem simple enough: shadow the receiver, watch his eyes and turn around in time to deflect the football. Deion Sanders does it all the time.

“There’s a lot more to it than that,” WSU defensive coordinator Bill Doba said. “Sure, he should turn around and see the ball, but how many times do you see the guy turn around and look, and as he looks, the ball goes over his head and the guy catches it?

“It’s an easy thing to sit in the stands and watch. It’s a real hard thing to do.”

This is not to make excuses for what happened Saturday. Admittedly, Gibbons made fundamental errors that could have cost WSU the game. Lapses in concentration were the primary culprit, Gibbons said.

“But that’s all going to be corrected this weekend,” he assured.

Gibbons may have outsmarted himself on Arizona’s second touchdown, a 37-yard pass from Ortege Jenkins to Dennis Northcutt. It was third-and-17, and Gibbons thought he had the play figured out.

“He gave me a move at 18 yards, and I stopped right at the first-down marker because I thought he was just going for the first down,” Gibbons said. “I stopped and he just kept going.”

As cornerbacks, Gibbons and teammate Dee Moronkola are always one mistake away from having a supporting role in someone else’s highlight film.

“I mean, even Deion Sanders has bad days,” Moronkola said. “Not too many, but…”

Against California, it was free safety Ray Jackson who struggled, giving up a long touchdown on the Bears’ first possession. The Cougars scored the game’s next 56 points, so Jackson’s lapse was quickly forgotten.

Almost, anyway. Secondary coach Craig Bray was less forgiving than the rest of us.

“Coach Bray came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’d better pick it up and practice well or we’re going to replace you,”’ Jackson said. “I think that’s the same thing that’s going on with LeJuan right now.”

WSU notes

Upon further review, Arizona tight end Brandon Manumaleuna was left uncovered in the end zone on the Wildcats’ failed two-point conversion attempt.

Jenkins didn’t see Manumaleuna and instead attempted to run the ball. He was quickly tackled by Gibbons and strong safety Duane Stewart, ending the game.

“I saw it on the film and I was like, ‘Oh my god,”’ Stewart said. “If he throws it, that’s it. But sports are like that. That’s football.”

At times, WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf speaks with all the restraint of Howard Stern. After the Arizona game, an Associated Press reporter asked Leaf about Brock Huard.

“He’s the quarterback from Washington,” Leaf answered. “I’m the one playing for the undefeated Washington State Cougars.”

When asked if the Apple Cup will decide the Rose Bowl participant, Leaf was even less diplomatic. “They won’t beat UCLA (on Nov. 15),” he predicted.

Huard was less abrasive. “It’s such a neat rivalry in this state,” he offered.

Add Leaf, “I was ecstatic when the game was over. But it’s like you walk off that football field and your life is back to normal, being a student. You know, I got three papers due this week.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos