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Hope for future: Young Cougs take turns stepping up

WSU receiver Gino Simone can’t hang on to a pass in the end zone in the first quarter Saturday at Husky Stadium. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
WSU receiver Gino Simone can’t hang on to a pass in the end zone in the first quarter Saturday at Husky Stadium. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)

SEATTLE – As the 2009 season wound down, each week a different Washington State defensive player or two seemed to step up and have a career game.

Against Oregon State a week ago it was safety Easton Johnson, playing his first game on the defensive side of the ball, and linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis.

Saturday it was Mike Ledgerwood.

The sophomore linebacker, playing partly due to injuries to the Cougars’ defensive line, was all over the field, especially in the first quarter, and finished with a career-high 14 tackles, including 10 by himself.

“I was just running my ass off,” Ledgerwood explained. “I was in the zone the whole time.”

Ledgerwood is part of coach Paul Wulff’s first recruiting class, a late get from River View High in Kennewick. Playing sparingly, Ledgerwood made 14 tackles as a freshman.

He opened this season on special teams, but started playing more after Louis Bland went down with a knee injury. He moved into the starting lineup last week when WSU switched to a 3-4 front.

“It’s wild seeing your (road) roommate out there playing really well,” said senior linebacker Andy Mattingly. “It’s a lot of fun seeing a young guy like him who has a lot of upside in the next couple years.”

Hoffman-Ellis followed up last week’s 15-tackle performance with seven more, including his first career sack. And Johnson, who sat the first half while usual starter Chima Nwachukwu tried, unsuccessfully, to play through his ankle sprain, played the second and recorded six tackles.

Johnson also forced and recovered Demitrius Bronson’s fourth-quarter fumble at WSU’s 3-yard line.

Fourth-string QB plays

When Kevin Lopina went out for good with an oblique muscle tear with less than 2 minutes remaining in the first half, WSU turned to Dan Wagner.

How a walk-on from Portland, who is higher on the depth chart at punter (second string) than quarterback (fourth), had to fill-in is another example of WSU’s injury problems.

With freshman Jeff Tuel out since the Arizona game with a kneecap problem, Lopina had taken over as the starter. But Lopina suffered a stinger in the first quarter and Marshall Lobbestael relieved.

Lobbestael was himself shaken up midway through the second quarter and was held out as a precaution until he could be checked at halftime.

Lopina returned, only to suffer the game-ending injury.

And in came Wagner, a 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore left-hander. Though that would be hard to tell, since he wasn’t called on to pass in four plays just before halftime.

“Surprisingly, I wasn’t too nervous,” Wagner said.

As the Cougars went through halftime, Lobbestael went to be checked out and Wagner started working with offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy.

“I was anticipating getting mentally prepared to go out in the second half,” Wagner said. “Coach Sturdy sat me down, we were going through plays, going through reads.”

But Lobbestael checked out OK and Wagner returned to the sidelines, signaling in the plays as he usually does.

“I was disappointed,” said Wagner, who filled in last year at Oregon State after Lobbestael’s knee injury. “I’m a competitor, I want to play. At the same time, I was relieved Marshall was healthy and good.”

Montgomery might return

After the game, Wulff was going over the team’s major injuries heading into the offseason when he dropped a bombshell about James Montgomery.

The junior running back was injured against SMU, had to have emergency surgery the next day and could have lost his left leg to acute compartment syndrome. Still, he had a hot-dog shaped piece of muscle removed from just below his knee to above his ankle.

“We’ve had wonderful news,” Wulff said of Montgomery. “It looks like he’s going to recover from that calf. It’s just been a blessing for us.

“They expect him to be 100 percent and that’s been a boost for our team. He’s made such unbelievable progress running. His calf isn’t 100 percent, but he’s come so far, so fast, they are very, very encouraged he’ll be back.”

Unlocking Locker

After managing just 13 yards rushing over the past four games, the Huskies turned loose quarterback Jake Locker on Saturday – and he responded with 94 yards on 10 carries, his best total of the year.

“We called some things to give him an opportunity to do that,” said UW coach Steve Sarkisian. “The ability to run the ball and make some plays he did that well again tonight.”