Lopina livin' large after first practice

PULLMAN -- Kevin Lopina, fresh from limbering his back in the training room hot tub, hit the Cougar practice field Tuesday and came away afterward with a message of hope for coaches and fans. "I felt fresh," said the junior quarterback who is ticketed to make his third career start on Saturday when WSU plays USC. "My legs, my arm and my back felt good today. It's a good start. It feels good."

Lopina didn't do a ton of passing Tuesday, but he ran with the first-unit throughout the proceedings and earned high marks from head coach Paul Wulff. "Kevin did a good job," he says. "(He brings) age, you know, it's a maturity and age combination. He's got a calming presence ... I think it was good for him, just mentally to come out and do it. As the practice went along you could tell he felt good."

The 6-3, 228-pound Lopina has been out of action since a blindside sack three weeks ago against Portland State sent him to the sidelines with a broken bone in his back. "I just have to loosen it (his back) up, I go into the training room before practice and go into the hot tub ... the trainers here are great," said Lopina.

Lopina, from Pleasanton, Calif., started working out again last week. He said he was rusty and had stiffness in his back at times. "I fumbled some snaps (last week), and little things like that, but other than that, it felt good," he said. "That time off, it was bad, but it could've helped in the long run... I don't think I performed as well as I could the first couple starts that I had. This time off I've been talking to my parents, thinking to myself, I can do better than that. I'm gonna try to come out this season and improve that, and hopefully we get some wins.

"I missed it," he added. "I was a starter and on top of the world. A Pac-10 starter. And then it all kinda went away. In one play. You never know when its gonna be your last play, so just cherish it."

When Marshall Lobbestael went down Saturday against Oregon State with a knee injury that will shelve him for the rest of the season, Lopina told himself it was time to kick up his rehab "a notch and get ready."

Despite lopsided scores, Lopina believes the 1-6 Cougars are more competitive than they were earlier in the season. "Against Oregon State, we were in the game. Sure, the total yards didn't show that, but we were trying to make plays. The effort's there...The past couple weeks, our effort has been through the roof. Hopefully we can keep that up and execute."

The Cougars are a 42 ½-point underdog to the No. 6-ranked Trojans this weekend. Lopina is undaunted. "With USC, it all eyes on them. Why can't the Cougars go out and have a good game and stop these people from making us seem like this horrible team when we're actually just young and going to come together. I'm going to try to talk the guys up and use it as a positive."

Wulff said barring something unforeseen, Lopina will start on Saturday. True freshman J.T. Levenseller is his backup, with Dan Wagner the No. 3. Wulff said he's still trying to preserve Levenseller's redshirt. "We haven't come to the conclusion on whether we'll play J.T. Levenseller or not yet," said Wulff. Wagner stepped in last week when Lobbestael went down.

Kickoff on Saturday in Pullman is 12:30 pm. FSN will carry the action live. In Seattle, The Village Pub will have its 28 flat screens tuned in, and drink and food specials on the menu.

NOTABLE NOTES:

• The Cougars' top two running backs, Dwight Tardy (knee) and Chris Ivory (hamstring), are still hobbling. Wulff said Ivory almost definitely out for this weekend and Tardy is "very questionable." Logwone Mitz, who carried the ball eight times for 46 yards against Oregon State, wore a yellow protective jersey Tuesday but is expected to share the rushing load Saturday with Chantz Staden and Marcus Richmond.

• The Cougar offensive line saw Steven Ayers take some reps at left tackle in place of Vaughn Lesuma (shoulder), while Andrew Roxas vacated his left guard spot to play center in place of Kenny Alfred, who left practice early for a lab and a test prep study group. "Can you believe that -- what's his priorities," joked Wulff. Brian Danaher was back at right guard after missing time with injury and B.J. Guerra, who made his first career start at OSU in place of Danaher, took turns at left guard.

• Tight end Devin Frischknecht, who left the OSU game with a high ankle sprain, sat out of practice in a boot and looks to be shelved for awhile. Ben Woodard and Tony Thompson will pick up the slack.

• Safety Xavier Hicks, who had two INTs and six tackles against OSU, also left practice early to tend to academic demands.


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