When Jeff Tuel ran onto the Coliseum turf with 8 minutes, 35 seconds left in the first half, he became WSU’s first true freshman to play quarterback there since Drew Bledsoe. And his first throw was Bledsoe-like. Or Bledsoe-lite if you prefer. Facing a third-and-4 from his 31, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Tuel had trouble reading the signals from the sideline and had to call time out. When play resumed, he stepped back and rifled a bullet to tight end Tony Thompson, who had less than a step on linebacker Jordan Campbell on the out pattern. It may have been just a 5-yard completion, but the confidence with which it was delivered, the speed of the ball, the small hole it found, all point to Tuel’s talent and chance for success.
As the first quarter wound down, the Cougars were holding their own, nothing at all like last year’s 69-0 debacle. But a quick stretch ensured defeat. It started with Matt Barkley’s touchdown strike to Brice Butler in the left corner of the end zone. It ended with Barkley finding Damian Williams for a 57-yard touchdown despite being knocked on his back by an onrushing Travis Long. It took only 9 seconds for the score to go from 6-0 to 20-0.
Pat on the back
Early in the fourth quarter, when Logwone Mitz and Tuel misfired on a handoff and handed the Trojans the ball at WSU’s 19, the defense stepped up. The group already had one goal-line stand, though Rhett Ellison did drop a sure touchdown on fourth down. This time, however, after a first-down incompletion from the 5, the Cougars corralled C.J. Gable three consecutive times on running plays to deny another score.
Washington State has to pass protect better, especially if Tuel is going to play. The freshman can escape pressure with his feet, but one blow could shorten his season.
Three unanswered questions
• Is it Tuel’s time? Now that Tuel’s redshirt has been used for this year, it’s time to let him play. That’s obvious. But what’s best for the Cougars’ future, playing him every down or using him in situations designed to his best advantage? The former gives the coaches more video to evaluate going forward and gives him the most opportunity for growth – if he stays healthy. The latter decreases both of the previous positives, of course, but also lessens the chance of injury.
• Were the penalties a foreshadowing or an aberration? WSU was hit eight times for 42 yards. Either it was a flag-happy officiating crew or, like what happened often last season, the Cougars were beaten physically and had to grab and hold to catch up.
• Can the Cougars start fast in Autzen? Walking off the field Saturday night, senior linebacker Andy Mattingly expressed disappointment over the defense’s poor start – again. That’s been this group’s M.O. all season: Struggle early, adjust and play much better after halftime. Until WSU comes out of the gate on fire, puts the pressure on the opponent and silences or energizes the crowd – depending on the venue – it won’t win against Pac-10 caliber opponents.
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