Backup quarterback is leading the charge at Washington State
By Mitch Light
You can remove the name Paul Wulff from the list of coaches on the hot seat. For now, at least.
Wulff entered his fourth season at Washington State, his alma mater, with a 2–25 record in league games and an overall mark of 5–32. And the Cougars weren’t just losing — they were getting pounded, with regularity. Of those 32 losses, 15 came by at least 30 points. Washington State, simply put, was beyond bad.
The Cougs showed some signs of progress late last season, most notably in a 31–14 win at Oregon State in mid-November, but it was clear that Wulff needed to win some games in ’11 to save his job.
Consider his job saved. Washington State is now 3–1 after rallying from 10 down in the final minutes to knock off Colorado, 31–27, in Boulder on Saturday. The Cougs haven’t exactly faced a grueling slate — they own wins over Idaho State, UNLV and CU — but when you have averaged 1.7 wins over the previous three seasons, any win is a good win.
“Honestly, I think this was the best win of my life,” cornerback Daniel Simmons said after the game. “We’re moving in the right direction, and we’re very excited about what we’re going to do We kept working and kept believing, and that’s what it’s about. We worked so hard over the summer and this is the end result.”
The Cougars’ hot start is even more impressive when you factor in that they have been without starting quarterback Jeff Tuel for the last three games. Considered to be one of the few true Pac-12-quality players on the Washington State offense, Tuel suffered a broken clavicle in the opener against Idaho State. With Tuel sidelined, Marshall Lobbestael, who had six career starts heading into this season, has been sensational running the Cougars’ attack. He has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 1,335 yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. In the win at Colorado last week, Lobbestael threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns, including two in the final three minutes.
“Practice pays off, and you have to practice these types of situations like we’ve practiced these past two weeks and how we practiced fourth quarters,” Lobbestael said following the game.
Tuel has been cleared to return to action, but Wulff indicated earlier in the week that Lobbestael will remain the starter — for now.
“We’re just going to give (Tuel) some quality reps and let him work himself back into shape,” the coach said.
Lobbestael expects Tuel to regain the starting assignment in the near future. And the fifth-year senior sounds like he is more than okay with the move, when and if it happens.
“Wait until you see this offense with Jeff,” Lobbestael said. “I’m not ragging on what I’ve done … but I’m excited to see what he can do this year. Everyone else should be too. That’s all I’m saying. I’m just going to keep preparing like I have been and my goal is just to be ready to play, whether that’s the first snap or second or third string.”
Whether it’s Tuel or Lebbestael running the show, Washington State will need to scratch and claw to get to six wins and become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2006. This week, the Cougars are a 3.5-point underdog at UCLA, one of the weaker teams in the league. There is a chance that Washington State will be favored only one more time the rest of the season, when struggling Oregon State visits Pullman on Oct. 22.
AROUND THE PAC-12
• Keith Price is getting a lot of pub at Washington — and deservedly so — but tailback Chris Polk has also been a huge part of the Huskies’ success on offense. The one-time USC commitment has rushed for 100 yards in four of the five games this season, with a high of 189 yards on 29 carries in UWs’ 31–14 win at Utah.
• Stanford has won 12 straight games dating back to last October, and all but two of the Cardinal’s wins during that stretch have come by at least 10 points.
• Stanford has only committed one turnover all season. That ties Northwestern for the fewest in the nation.
• USC has given up 40-plus points in back to back games for the first time in school history.
• Oregon State has only scored seven touchdowns this season. Only UAB (six) and FAU (five) have scored fewer.
• USC’s Robert Woods leads the Pac-12 with 55 receptions, 23 more than the league’s No. 2 receiver, Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton.
• Arizona is the only team in the league that has given up over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving. Opponents are averaging 7.3 yards per play against the Cats’ defense, by far the most in the Pac-12.
• Opponents are only converting 23.9 percent on third down against Arizona State. That number leads the nation.
We knew what Oregon State was missing. We were aware that the Beavers would be without arguably the most exciting offensive player in school history (Jacquizz Rodgers) and without a player considered by many to be the top defensive lineman in the Pac-10 in 2010 (Stephen Paea). And we understood that James Rodgers, one of the most versatile playmakers in college football over the past few years, would be out indefinitely while recovering from a knee injury.
Still, we expected Oregon State to be good. Not great. But pretty good — as in fourth in the very tough Pac-12 North, with a predicted conference record of 4–5 and an overall mark of 6–6.
Why the optimism? Mike Riley. The Beavers’ veteran head coach always seems to do more with less, somehow getting his team to remain a factor in the league race.
So when it was time to make our predictions, we simply gave Riley and the Beavers the benefit of the doubt, assuming they would find a way to thrive despite the loss of some great players.
Well, look who’s 0–2. It’s still early, but the signs aren’t good for Oregon State, which opened the season with a stunning loss to FCS foe Sacramento State (which lost the following week to Southern Utah) and a 35–0 defeat at Wisconsin.
It might not be time to panic in Corvallis — after all, the 2008 Beavers recovered from an 0–2 start to finish 9–4 — but it’s hard to find many expected wins when you take a look at the final 10 games on the Beavers’ slate.
So what’s the problem? Well, the offense has struggled to get going, even with the emergence of true freshman Malcolm Agnew, who rushed for 223 yards against Sacramento State before missing the Wisconsin game with a hamstring injury. And the quarterback situation is a mess. Strong-armed Ryan Katz, the 2010 starter, was pulled in favor of Sean Mannion during the Wisconsin game. On Tuesday afternoon, Riley announced that Mannion will start against UCLA, but both quarterbacks will likely play.
The numbers aren’t horrible defensively, but the Badgers did give up 29 points to an FCS school and have really struggled against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks are 40-of-57 for 485 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Those numbers have resulted in a national ranking of 116th in passing efficiency defense. It hasn’t helped that senior cornerback Brandon Hardin, one of only three returning starters on defense, has yet to play due to a shoulder injury.
Riley, to his credit, isn’t panicking. He, better than most, understands that there is plenty of time to get his team turned in the right direction. Oregon State has had a winning record in six of eight seasons since Riley returned to Corvallis despite having a combined record of 15–17 in the month of September. Clearly, his teams have a knack for improving as the season progresses.
“I really have hopes for this team,” the coach said after his team was shut out by Wisconsin. “I think there was a lot of stuff today, particularly defensively that was better. So we can build on that. Offensively, I know we can do better.”
They better do better, or Oregon State could be headed for back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the late 1990s.
AROUND THE PAC-12
• Washington State is 2–0 for the first time since 2005 after rolling to wins of 64–21 over Idaho State and 59–7 over UNLV. The level of competition has been very poor, but it’s clear that Paul Wulff’s program is making some progress. The Cougars went 2–10 last season, but ended the year with a shocking 31–14 win at Oregon State and a competitive 35–28 loss to rival Washington in the Apple Cup. The win over UNLV was especially noteworthy because Washington State had to play without quarterback Jeff Tuel, who is out 4-6 weeks with a broken collarbone. Senior Marshall Lobbestael, who had three starts as a redshirt freshman and three as a sophomore, stepped in and completed 24-of-32 for 361 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
• Colorado has already given up 13 plays of 20-plus yards, the most in the Pac-12.
• Washington’s Keith Price has attempted 25 passes in each of his first two games. He completed 17 for 102 yards against Eastern Washington and 18 for 315 yards against Hawaii. His yards per attempt jumped from 4.1 to 12.6 in one week.
• Not much went well for Arizona in last Thursday’s trip to Oklahoma State, but the Wildcats, who played without Juron Criner, did get some production from junior Dan Buckner. A transfer from Texas and former big-time recruit, Buckner caught 10 passes for 142 yards and scored a touchdown.
• Stanford has given up one offensive touchdown in two games, and it came in the final minute of a 44–14 win at Duke. The Cardinal’s opponents have converted only 6-of-30 third down attempts.
Off-the-record quotes from PAC-12 coaches about their rivals.
Each year we ask college football coaches to tell us what they really think about the other teams in their conference. But we don't want the same old press conference quotes, so we asked them to give us their quotes...anonymously. Here are this year's quotes in alphabetical order for each team in thePAC-12.
If you were a free agent coach, which job would you want most in the PAC-12?
We have ranked every college football program in the country, based on the attractiveness of the position from a coaching perspective. We considered many factors — tradition, facilities, location, money — but in the end, we simply asked ourselves the following question: Where would we want to coach?
(Note: Current or impending NCAA sanctions were not a factor in these rankings.)