Cougar freshmen linebackers go on Duck hunt

ALL IT TOOK, he said, was one play to evoke the kind of feeling best known by, well, superheroes. It was Oregon's second possession of the second half and running back LaMichael James was running free, racing with the ball 55 yards to Washington State's 29-yard line.

Enter the freshmen.

In his first start at middle linebacker, C.J. Mizell tracked down and forced James to fumble against the sideline. And Sekope Kaufusi recovered it -- without going out of bounds.

"My eyes lit up," said Kaufisi, a redshirt freshman from Palo Alto, Calif. "I felt like Superman."

Mizell, a true freshman from Tallahassee, Fla., led the Cougars with 12 tackles, nearly doubling his season total. Kaufusi added four more.

And the latter hadn't played a game at linebacker all season.

HE WAS RECRUITED at the position, but moved at the start of the year to defensive end. With junior MIK Mike Ledgerwood recovering from a neck stinger suffered Sept. 11 against Montana State and Louis Bland out for the season following surgery on his left knee, the Cougars were a little short on linebackers. More than that, the 'backers had struggled more often than not this season.

Bringing Kaufusi back into the fold looked to be the spark the Cougs needed.

"It started coming back to me slowly," he said. "I feel like this is my natural position."

He and Mizell, who was replacing Ledgerwood in the middle, played key roles in a defensive effort that held No. 3 Oregon to, albeit slightly, 13 yards under its total offensive average.

James came into the game averaging 178 yards a game, the best in the nation. He finished with 136 yards on 25 carries -- 55 of them came on the play that resulted in the fumble that Mizell forced. He also had a second fumble, in the fourth quarter.

And Mizell and Kaufusi, and WSU's defense, held Oregon to its second fewest points (43) this season, (Arizona State, 42). Everyone who thought that would happen before the game raise your hands.

"Those are two big kids," coach Paul Wulff said of Mizell and Kaufusi. "They're going to be really good players. I was proud of the effort to knock the ball out."

Mizell, whose attitude and effort had been questioned earlier this season on the practice field, seems to have grown up the last couple weeks. He said after the game that he knew he had to play with energy this week.

And he listened to his defensive coordinator.

"I knew inside that I was going to run him down -- Coach (Chris) Ball told me to get my arm in there because he carries it loose."

AND HE WASN'T the only one who was ready.

"We just ran our keys," Kaufusi said. "We drilled really hard during the week so we knew where the ball was going to hit."

Also making an impact Saturday was junior wide receiver Jared Karstetter, who had a career-high 10 catches for 106 yards including a beautiful grab down the sideline on a go-route.

The junior's previous career best was 87 receiving yards on eight catches Sept. 25 against USC.

"I thought our kids today showed continued growth," said color commentator and former WSU coach Jim Walden after the game. "It's so obvious to see how much better they're getting."

Tuel agreed, saying that he was especially pleased that they were able to run the ball at times and take some pressure off of him and the passing game.

"We obviously don't like to lose, but we're excited at the same time," the sophomore said. "To give a team like that all they can handle brings us confidence."

WULFF, HOWEVER, DIRECTED several comments in his post-game interview toward what has unfortunately yet to change.

"We've had two weeks in a row where we've put ourselves in position to win in the fourth quarter," he lamented.

He added that he was disappointed in the team's inability to rally after Tuel's third quarter interception that cost the Cougs a chance to get within six points.

"That's the disappointing part," he said. "We need to fight through it when we're in tough situations."

Even so, he determinedly said, "ultimately, we're going to pull one of these out."

NOTABLE NOTES
  • Tuel has passed for at least 200 yards in every game this season. He finished with 245 hashes against Oregon.

  • North Mason High School graduate John Fullington played most of the game at right tackle. The true freshman replaced Micah Hannam, who left during the first half with a concussion. Hannam has started 43 consecutive games at that position, which ranks first in school history among offensive linemen, but he has shared time with Fullington this year. Mike Utley started 42 games on the offensive line for the Cougars from 1985-88.

  • Senior Daniel Blackledge's touchdown catch was just the third of his career.

  • Redmond High School product Logwone Mitz's 15 carries marked a career high. The junior finished with 55 yards. Mitz's previous best was 10 carries in the season opener Sept. 4 at Oklahoma State.

  • True freshman defensive tackle Kalafitoni Pole did not play against the Ducks. Wulff said during the week that he would prefer to redshirt Pole, who was sidelined for several weeks with the shin injury, at this point of the season. Wulff has played seven scholarship true freshmen this season, including safety Deone Bucannon, Fullington, running back Rickey Galvin, cornerback Damante Horton, Mizell, linebacker Eric Oertel and wide receiver Marquess Wilson. Walk-on true freshmen who have played include wide receiver Bennett Bontemps, kicker Andrew Furney and defensive back Jack Wilson.

  • WSU now has lost four consecutive games against the Ducks for the first time since 1998-01.

  • A year ago, the Cougars were tied with Colorado for the third most turnovers (31) among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Only Miami of Ohio (36) and Hawaii (33) were worse. Halfway through this season, WSU has lost 10 turnovers.


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