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.