PULLMAN – Reed Lesuma knew Saturday was going to be a good day. He just didn’t know how good.
After all, the senior offensive lineman knew he was going to make his first career start, leaving Martin Stadium in a style befitting one of the most well-liked and respected Washington State University football players.
But it started getting better Friday night. That’s when he returned home after practice and his older brother – and former Cougars teammate – Vaughn sitting in his chair. Then his mother Irene popped out of the bedroom. They had flown in from Hawaii to surprise Reed at his final home game.
“It caught me completely off-guard,” Lesuma said.
Twenty hours later, he did the same to the Oregon State defense.
Lesuma started at left guard in place of junior Zack Williams. It was expected he would play a series and then head back to his usual spot on the point-after and field-goal teams.
But the Cougars marched 49 yards on their first possession and Lesuma did his part, making every block. So he stayed in.
“I was very proud of Reed,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “He has not played a snap all year on offense … and boy, I thought he did a great job.”
Lesuma, meeting the media postgame sporting a leaf lei brought by his mother from the Islands, agreed with his coach’s assessment – to a point.
“I felt like I did all right,” Lesuma said. “There are always things you can improve on and you are always your worst critic. There were a lot of times where I was saying, ‘Shoot, I should have done that’ or, ‘I could have done that better.’
“Overall, the quarterback got sacked once toward the end of the game, so I guess we did a pretty good job.”
Lesuma wasn’t the only surprise contributor. He wasn’t even the most surprising.
Up until Thursday afternoon, Easton Johnson was a backup receiver. A walk-on last year out of Feather River (Calif.) CC, Johnson spent that season as a reserve safety, seeing some minutes on special teams.
In the spring he was switched to receiver, though he fell behind his peers quickly in the fall. A snafu with a summer class forced him to sit until mid-September before it was finally straightened out.
By then WSU was already down two defensive backs. Over the ensuing weeks, two more were lost for the season. Then against Notre Dame starting safety Chima Nwachukwu went down with a bad ankle sprain. Wednesday, reserve cornerback Anthony Houston tried to stop and tore up his knee.
The next day Johnson was back with the defense.
Saturday, when Brandon Jones was lost with a back injury after four plays, he was on the field the next series. He played the nickel back spot the remaining 66 plays.
“I was really excited because I just like playing football, period,” he said. “To just get a chance to play, it’s really cool.”
Throughout the game, Glenn Johnson kept announcing Johnson’s name as the tackler to the half-full stadium – including Johnson’s first play – and didn’t stop until he had said it 10 times.
That number was second most on the Cougars, tied with another backup defensive back, Aire Justin, five behind linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis’ game-high total.
“Running nickel, I ran it last year a little bit and it’s not too complex,” said Johnson, who grew up in Renton, Wash. “I got a lot of help from the other safeties.”
A case of the Hicks-up
The Cougars hadn’t done much to stop Oregon State’s offense – the Beavers put together touchdown drives of 80, 65 and 65 yards the first three times they had the ball. They were threatening a fourth when WSU safety Xavier Hicks picked off a Sean Canfield pass in the red zone midway through the second quarter.
Canfield was throwing for tight end Joe Halahuni headed toward the end zone, but Hicks stepped right into the line of fire – though he was shadowing Markus Wheaton on the play.
“They like bringing the No. 2 receiver across the field off a play-action pass and they ran one a couple of plays before that,” Hicks said. “I was just being aware of them doing it again. I wanted to sink deep enough so I could get coverage on him and the quarterback threw it right to me.”
Hoffman-Ellis joined the WSU football team last year after one high school season and one at junior college. Even he admits his football knowledge wasn’t deep.
“This year I learned what a three-technique is on the D-line, what that meant,” the sophomore middle linebacker said. “It’s still a learning process.”
He’s learning fast. Not only were his 15 tackles a career high, they came playing inside on a 3-4 defense, something the Cougars have played only sparingly the past two seasons.
The defense allows linebackers to run, and that’s Hoffman-Ellis’ strength.
“I’m not letting you get away from me,” the 6-foot-1, 233-pound Hoffman-Ellis said. “Even before I started playing football, I always loved to just run. I took pride in being fast for someone who’s a little bit bigger.”
See you in December
Wulff was asked about the crowd, which was announced at 16,167 but seemed quite a bit fewer. WSU’s students are off for Thanksgiving – Friday was the last day of classes – and only a couple of hundred were in attendance.
In the course of his answer, he may have let slip the date of next year’s Apple Cup, which hasn’t been announced.
“Our schedule next year, we play Washington Dec. 4,” he said. “It’s late, so I think we have two late byes. … If you’re going to look at fan attendance, that’s an impact.”
The Cougars and UW have never met later than Nov. 30.