WSU shows progress in loss to No. 3 Oregon

THE REBUILDING PROCESS is beginning to feel closer to culmination. Washington State still is nowhere near the Pac-10's elite as it showed during a 43-23 loss in Saturday's homecoming game against No. 3 Oregon. But there is tangible evidence of development and reasons to believe that the "steps" Cougars coach Paul Wulff frequently discusses are starting to occur.

Consider that WSU lost 63-14 and 52-6 against the Ducks in Wulff's first two seasons. In Bill Doba's final year, 2007, it was 53-7. After the first quarter, the Cougars trailed by a combined score of 59-0 in those games.

Nearly everyone projected a similar outcome with WSU (1-5 overall, 0-3 conference) entering the game as 36-point underdogs. But the Cougars still had an opportunity for an upset late in the third quarter until sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel was intercepted by Casey Matthews on first-and-10 at Oregon's 12-yard line with the Ducks leading 36-23.

"I got a little greedy taking a shot I shouldn't have," Tuel said in a postgame radio interview.

IT WAS ONE of the few mistakes Tuel made. Credit maligned offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy for junking his preference for a power-running game, which does not suit the Cougars' personnel, and empowering Tuel and his receivers.

That occurred last week when WSU moved the ball effectively in a 42-28 loss at UCLA. But against a much better opponent, Tuel showed that he is developing into one of the conference's best quarterbacks. He completed 25 of 40 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown.

"Jeff Tuel is becoming a really good quarterback," WSU radio commentator and former coach Jim Walden said during the first half. "He is throwing the ball wonderfully today."

After watching the Ducks (6-0, 3-0) convert a pair of fourth downs on a 13-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard run by LaMichael James, Tuel went to work with Oregon up 8-0.

The initial possession was difficult, but Tuel followed it with three first downs -- one on a run and two on completions to junior Jared Karstetter, who finished the day with 106 yards on 10 receptions -- on his next opportunity. Senior James Montgomery then scored on a 26-yard touchdown run to cut the Cougars' deficit to 8-7.

THAT IS WHEN WSU's special teams made its own big play. Redshirt freshman Anthony Carpenter forced a fumble on Kenjon Barner, who was hit so hard that he left the game, and it was recovered by senior Hallston Higgins at the Oregon 6. Two plays later, Logwone Mitz scored on a 1-yard run to put the Cougars ahead 14-8.

But WSU's only lead was short lived.

Three plays later, junior linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis over-pursued James, who sprinted 84 yards untouched to put the Ducks ahead 15-14 with 3 minutes, 40 seconds left in the first quarter.

While the defensive line, particularly sophomore Travis Long and junior Brandon Rankin, seemed to play better, the rest of the Cougars' youthful defense was challenged. Oregon, which entered the contest with an average of 56.6 points per game, produced 558 yards of total offense against WSU.

Three turnovers prevented the Ducks from reaching their season scoring average and helped keep the Cougars in the game.

BUT WSU NEEDED to play a near-perfect game for an opportunity at an upset. And while James was held well below his season average at 5.4 yards per carry -- he finished with 136 yards on 25 carries -- the Cougars still made plenty of mistakes.

"We probably tackled him for more short-yardage runs than we have all year," Wulff said. "Our defensive line got off blocks and made more plays at the line of scrimmage than we have all year."

Special teams, which has seen significant improvement under new position coach Dave Ungerer, surrendered a 67-yard touchdown return by Cliff Harris to put Oregon ahead 22-14 in the second quarter.

Tuel then drove WSU down to the Ducks' 22, but a holding penalty pushed the Cougars back and they never recovered. A 50-yard field goal by junior Nico Grasu cut their deficit to 22-17.

But it was more than enough time for Oregon to respond -- even with backup Nate Costa replacing injured sophomore Darron Thomas -- as James capped an eight-play, 83-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. That gave the Ducks a 29-17 lead at halftime.

OREGON APPEARED TO put the game out of reach on its first possession of the second half when Costa scored on an 18-yard run.

But Tuel responded with an 11-play drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to senior Daniel Blackledge. It only was the second touchdown the Ducks have allowed in the second half all year.

And the Cougars immediately regained possession when true freshman C.J. Mizell forced a James fumble after a 55-yard run. But the momentum -- and upset hopes -- ended that series with Tuel's interception.

"We had a heck of a drive," Wulff said. "We didn't respond really well after that, which was disappointing. It was a turning point. We've got to fight back and overcome that."

Costa then responded on Oregon's next series and hit senior Jeff Maehl for a 34-yard touchdown to bring the score to its final.

The Cougars will have another opportunity to show how much progress they have made at 4:30 p.m. Saturday against No. 9 Arizona.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: The Cougars trailed 36-23, but had first-and-10 at Oregon's 12-yard line. But sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel was intercepted on that play by Casey Matthews, and the Ducks scored on their ensuing possession to end any WSU upset hopes.

CATCH OF THE GAME: Senior Daniel Blackledge took a vicious hit, but held onto the ball for an 11-yard touchdown score in the third quarter.

HIT OF THE GAME: Sophomore Anthony Carpenter hospitalized Oregon kickoff returner Kenjon Barner with a first-quarter hit. More significantly, Barner fumbled and Hallston Higgins recovered to give the Cougars possession at the Oregon 6. Two plays later, junior running back Logwone Mitz scored on a 1-yard run to put WSU ahead 14-8.

STAT OF THE GAME: The Cougars held a 3-1 edge in turnovers, which helped keep their upset hopes alive for most of the game. Nearly as impressive was this: The Cougs collected 21 first downs to Oregon's 22.

MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: WSU's offense did a decent job of maintaining drives, but its nine-minute time of possession advantage was a byproduct of some quick Oregon scores, including an 84-yard run by LaMichael James and a 67-yard punt return from Cliff Harris that both resulted in touchdowns.

LEADING TACKLERS: True freshman C.J. Mizell finished with a game-high 12 tackles (9 solo) in his first collegiate start. He also forced a fumble that set up a score. Junior linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis added eight tackles, including a sack, and forced a fumble.

NEXT GAME: WSU hosts Arizona (4-0 overall, 1-0 conference), which entered its game Saturday against Oregon State ranked No. 9 in the country. OSU won 29-27 in Tucson. The next week marks Dad's Weekend in Pullman, and the 4:30 game will be televised by Versus.

Cougfan Top Stories