COMMENTARY: Is Lobbestael the answer?

IT'S A LITTLE EASIER to be a Cougar football fan this week. Thanks to Saturday's 48-9 whipping of Portland State, there's no danger Washington State will become the Duke or Florida International of 2006. The Vikings aren't going to beat a lot of Big Sky teams this season, but do you really care right now?

A win is a win, especially during this short-on-good-news season. And one under the belt after four weeks is one more than Duke or Florida International – the last two winless teams in Division I-A – managed in all of 2006.

First, before delving into Saturday and what could yield some promise for the future, a Cougfan tip of the cap to quarterback Gary Rogers.

Barring an NCAA Hail Mary, Rogers' college career is finished, the result of a horrific third-quarter hit that sent the fifth-year senior quarterback to the hospital by ambulance. The diagnosis was a cervical spine fracture, an injury that will not require surgery but will take several months to heal.

No one should have their football career come to an end this way, but Rogers in particular. In an era when college football players are quick to transfer schools when they don't get their way – especially quarterbacks – Rogers showed rare loyalty to Washington State. He patiently waited his turn for three years behind Alex Brink even though Brink was more successful in piling up records than victories.

The 2008 season was supposed to be Rogers' reward, even if it meant losing his starting job at some point. Now, Rogers is done.

That's too bad.

His demise and a first-half shoulder injury to the starter of the past two weeks, Kevin Lopina, has suddenly opened the door to Marshall Lobbestael, the second-year freshman from Oak Harbor. Could this former state 4A high schol player of the year be the answer to WSU's offensive problems?

Lobbestael sure gave that impression in one half of work Saturday. During his first five plays as a big-time college quarterback, Lobbestael threw two touchdown passes. Given that a college team runs around 70 plays a game, you can expect Lobbestael to be good for around 28 touchdown passes a game in the future.

No pressure there, Marshall.

OK, so we're getting carried away here. Which is what many might say about Lobbestael's 9 of 12, two-touchdown passing performance Saturday which earned him Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week honors. It came against Portland State. Big deal. Let's see Lobbestael do it against Arizona State or Oregon State before starting a nickname campaign.


Still, you only need to go back to last season to find several Marshall Lobbestaels in the Pacific-10 Conference.

That is, unless you were an expert on names such as Lyle Moevao, Justin Roper, Tavita Pritchard and Kevin Riley.

All four were as far off the radar at the outset of 2007 as Lobbestael was this season. Yet three of the four led their teams to bowl victories, and the fourth – Pritchard – engineered last season's biggest upset, Stanford's shocking 24-23 win at then No. 2 Southern California.

Is Lobbestael next?

On the surface, probably not. The Cougars still have many issues. They have to prove they can stop a Division I-A offense, and keep opposing pass rushers from burying the quarterback.

On the other hand, Washington State plays in the Pac-10, which looks as awful as ever. While many are wringing their hands over the Pac-10's 2008 demise, the Cougars should view the league's freefall as opportunity.

Suddenly, Washington State doesn't have to think the win buck stops at Portland State. It could continue as early as Saturday, when Oregon comes to town. The Ducks have serious quarterback issues, as long as Justin Roper doesn't play in Pullman.

After that, the Cougars play at UCLA, a team WSU always play tough. After starting the season with a head-scratching win over Tennessee, the Bruins have been dreadful.

Regardless of who plays quarterback for Washington State, the Cougars have a chance against UCLA.

The win possibilities don't end there. Oregon State certainly doesn't blow anyone away. Same with Stanford and Washington. And the season ends with Hawaii, which is nowhere near the quality of Warrior teams of the recent years.

Before you think this humble columnist is drinking the Crimson Kool-Aid and predicting seven wins and a bowl berth, whoa, stop right there. I'm merely saying in what looks to be a rotten season for WSU, the Pac-10 may be worse.

Another win or two is possible.

Especially if Lobbestael turns out to be competent. Because I believe the Cougars' offense could come around. Running backs Dwight Tardy and Christopher Ivory are of Pac-10 quality. Jeshua Anderson is starting to get into football shape, and that's good news for a receiving corps that includes Brandon Gibson and Devin Frischknecht.

I'm not as optimistic about WSU's defense, though the addition of playmakers such as Tyrone Justin and Xavier Hicks help. Against the likes of UCLA, Washington and Stanford, the Cougars' defense might be good enough if the offense gives them a breather and a few breaks.

Last Saturday doesn't have to be the high point of Washington State's 2008 season.

Nick Daschel covered Washington and Washington State football, and to a lesser extent, the Pacific-10 Conference, for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., over the past two decades.

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