John Blanchette: Cougars have a QB, but what else?
PULLMAN – Most schools try to get their games on ESPN. Washington State thinks it’s a big deal if its flag gets air time.
For 100 consecutive editions of ESPN’s GameDay, some dutiful Coug has waved the Ol’ Crimson on camera, a bit of notoriety akin to doing a cannonball off the diving board and hollering, “Look at me, Ma!” Rarely has a gesture for posterity felt more pathetic. It almost makes you long for Rockin’ Rollen with his rainbow afro and “John 3:16” sign.
This is what was celebrated Saturday by a connect-the-dots crowd of 17,648 at Martin Stadium. The Cougars might have been able to trump it and celebrate an actual victory, but that takes points, poise and personnel, and Wazzu remains short on all three.
From the looks of the latest loss – 20-13 to the underwhelming California Golden Bears – the Cougars have become almost desperately dependent on the wiles of Jeff Tuel. And as we’ve learned sifting through dispatches from the other side of the mountains, there is some lifting that is too heavy for even Heisman Trophy frauds, never mind a promising young quarterback learning his craft on the fly.
Of course, it is also considered good strategy to play well. Tuel will not be saving this one in his scrapbook.
And yet the Cougars – whose current streak of eight losses is merely the second longest of the past two years – have few options other than to heap more on the sophomore’s narrow shoulders.
“We need to utilize him more in the run game and that’s just the facts for us right now,” acknowledged coach Paul Wulff. “We’re not in a position not to use him.”
Been that was for a while, actually. Since the beginning of Pacific-10 Conference play, the Cougs haven’t managed 100 yards on the ground in any game – and only once before Saturday had a running back grind out more than 50. In running the ball, they come by their 117th ranking – out of 120 FBS teams – honestly.
So there was Tuel on Saturday, the point man on some option and zone-read plays, skittering out on the edge, both buying the Cougs some precious real estate and offering some deception that in theory would make his backs more effective and open up the passing routes.
Also, there was this:
“I had a blast,” Tuel said. “It was fun.”
Hmm. It was probably a relief, considering all the attention he received from the Bears any time he tried to function out of the pocket.
His designed forays produced 46 yards. He got another 27 running for his skin on pass plays. He was also sacked six times, and when he was able to get the ball off he completed just 9 of 25 passes for a season-low 92 yards.
So, well, good theory.
Tuel’s struggles were never more costly than on the three possessions the Cougars had after they’d trimmed Cal’s lead to 14-13 late in the third quarter. He was 0-of-6 and sacked once, and the Cougs managed minus four yards with the day there to be seized.
“We didn’t make enough plays in the passing game today,” said offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy. “That was the difference. We’ve made some big plays on vertical balls and post balls this year, and if we make a couple of those, we win.”
Not that Tuel was propped up by much support. There were the usual drops, a bad snap here, collapsing protection there, receivers unable to shake loose of Cal’s press coverage and overmatched freshman tackle John Fullington’s continued pursuit of the Pac-10 record for killing penalties.
And there is no one else besides Tuel to build a game plan around.
The Cougars are down to two healthy running backs and, now that Gino Simone took a helmet-to-helmet lick that went stunningly uncalled, three active scholarship receivers. Fullington’s OJT is unavoidable because his backup starts beside him at guard.
“We got to mid-year and we were taking some huge steps,” said an exasperated Sturdy. “We’ve got a guy at quarterback now. We’ve got receivers – we’ve redshirted a couple and we have to stay the course with that. I love our kids – they’re working their asses off – and it’s going to happen. But you take a step forward and two back. We just don’t have enough depth in our program.”
But they do have a quarterback, who even on his bad days offers a smidgen of hope.
“What I like and why I recruited him is, he’s a great passer that can hurt people with his feet,” Sturdy said. “We’re going to be careful how we do that – but we will do it because it’s going to help everything else.”
Better hurry, though, because interest in Cougar football is definitely, uh, flagging.