PULLMAN – Rarely has a 64-21 season-opening rout seemed like such a downer.
It wasn’t because of the way Washington State played in demolishing Idaho State before 22,034 on a beautiful sunny Saturday at Martin Stadium.
No, the Cougars put together their most complete game in Paul Wulff’s tenure as their coach.
It was because of one play late in the first quarter, a common little rollout by junior quarterback Jeff Tuel. A common play that ended in no gain as he stepped out of bounds at the 10 and fell on his left shoulder.
And his clavicle, or as it’s more commonly known, his collarbone, broke.
“It’s a fluke deal,” WSU offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said, though he wasn’t just referring to Tuel’s injury, one that Wulff said could keep him out for 4-to-6 weeks.
Sturdy was referring to the whole situation surrounding Tuel, who started all 12 games a year ago, from before the kickoff.
Tuel awoke suffering from a stomach virus. An hour before game time the decision was made to go with backup Marshall Lobbestael, a fifth-year senior. But Tuel worked with the training staff and, after skipping pregame, came out with the team prior to kickoff.
Still Lobbestael started, his first since 2009. And he was perfect for two possessions. He hit six consecutive passes and led WSU to two quick scores, the first an 11-yard Rickey Galvin run, the second on a 27-yard toss to Isiah Barton, who walked into the end zone.
But Tuel was ready, and he is WSU’s starter.
“He felt good enough that he really wanted to play,” Wulff said. “He wanted to come in the second series and we said no. He wanted to come in the third series and we said, ‘All right, we’ll put you in there.’”
The possession started on the Idaho State 30 after Anthony Carpenter undressed returner Tavoy Moore, who fumbled the ball to Bennett Bontemps.
Tuel handed off three times and just missed Jared Karstetter on a fade. Facing a second-and-6 from the 10, he rolled right, couldn’t find an open man and was forced out of bounds by J.T. Albers. He stumbled and fell.
“Jeff was feeling really good and really excited and was ready to go,” Sturdy said. “We were going to give him a series or two and see where it went from there.”
Tuel threw another pass – 4 yards to Galvin – before Andrew Furney trotted on to connect on a 23-yard field goal. WSU led 17-0, and Lobbestael became the Cougars’ quarterback for the next few weeks.
“Jeff’s going to be on the field as soon as he can, I know that,” Lobbestael said. “Until then, Connor (Halliday) and I just have to hold the fort. He’s the guy and we understand that. We’re going to do whatever we have to do to pick up the slack until he comes back.”
The Cougars, who won their first season opener since 2005 and scored their most points since a 77-7 win over Southwestern Louisiana in 1997, had little in the way of slack in this one.
Lobbestael hit his first nine throws, finished 14 of 19 for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a 61-yarder to Marquess Wilson to close out a 40-0 first half.
Eleven Cougars caught passes from Lobbestael, Tuel and Halliday (6 of 13 for 67 yards and a 20-yard touchdown pass to Kristoff Williams).
Four Cougars scored their first career touchdowns, with Galvin getting two, Marcus Mason exploding for a 65-yard third-quarter run, and Barton and Williams getting their catches.
Eight Cougars combined for 289 yards rushing, the most in five years, and the 590 yards of total offense was the most since Portland State in Wulff’s first season.
The Cougars scored four times on the ground for the first time since that Southwest Louisiana game.
“I thought we were physical, thought we played fast and I think our tackling was pretty dang good,” Wulff said.
Though Idaho State, 1-10 a year ago but under new management with former Eastern Washington and Montana State head coach Mike Kramer at the helm, finished with 453 yards of total offense – only 23 of them on the ground – the WSU defense was pretty good in the opening half, shutting out the Bengals while giving up just 113 yards.
“I would have liked to get the shutout but let up some big plays in the second half,” said defensive end Travis Long, one of five Cougars with sacks.
And that was Wulff’s one disappointment – other than injuries, of course.
“We let down on defense, our intensity in the second half a little bit,” Wulff said. “We got a little sloppy and gave up a couple of big pass plays.”
But only one of the three 46-plus-yard plays the Bengals converted – accounting for 163 of ISU’s 430 passing yards – came against the first-team defense.
First-year starter Kevin Yost completed 32 of 45 passes for 386 yards, though he spent much of the game on his back. Besides the five sacks, WSU knocked Yost down at least 10 more times.
He also threw one interception and it was costly. Trying to hit tight end Josh Hill on the right side, Yost underthrew him but found Alex Hoffman-Ellis perfectly in stride. The senior linebacker took the pick back for six, making the score 23-0 – the extra point was blocked – near the end of the first quarter.
“Pretty much as soon as I caught that ball, I knew I was going to go to the house,” said Hoffman-Ellis, who had another pick six against SMU two years ago. “Then I took just a minute to admire Sekope (Kaufusi), I think, cleaning up the quarterback. I was running and I took a minute to just go, ‘Ooh.’”
That’s pretty much what all the Cougars said after learning of Tuel’s injury. But, with UNLV coming to Pullman next week, there’s no time to pout.
“I think our football team is confident enough that we’ve got enough players on this team to be a dang good football team,” Wulff said. “We’re going to go out and play.”