Tuel shines but young Cougs can't match Cal

WSU COACH PAUL WULFF has delivered more than one "stay the course" message to fans during his two years at the program's helm. While the results often have been ugly, Wulff remained emphatic that his inexperienced team is improving. At the same time, post game, he was equally adamant that it was time for the Cougs to take another step.

The Cougars' play saw elements of both -- the ugly and the improving -- during Saturday's 49-17 loss at California.

Jeff Tuel made his third start and the 6-foot-3, 207-pound true freshman played the best game of his young collegiate career, completing 28 of 41 passes for 354 yards. It was the most yards by a WSU quarterback since Alex Brink threw for 399 yards in a 42-35 Apple Cup win at Washington in 2007. It also was the second most passing yards by a freshman quarterback for the Cougars.

"I started feeling more comfortable, was able to make more reads and deliver the ball," Tuel said during a post-game radio interview. "I really had a presence in the pocket. I trusted my linemen."

BUT IN WHAT HAS BECOME a familiar theme this season -- an awful start -- the Cougars allowed 28 points in the first quarter and trailed the Bears 35-3 early in the second period.

"We've got to get to a point where we start winning ballgames," Wulff said during a post-game radio interview. "Getting better isn't good enough. We need to take some big steps here."

How bad was it on defense? Cal (5-2 overall, 2-2 Pac-10) only needed more than three plays once to score its first five touchdowns. Granted, many of those problems stemmed from erratic special teams play, particularly in the kicking game. The Bears' first possession began at the WSU 29-yard line. Two plays later, Jahvid Best scored on a 27-yard touchdown run.

"We need to do a better job tackling," Wulff said. "But not a lot of people can match those guys."

Following a 27-yard touchdown pass from Kevin Riley to Marvin Jones, Cal took advantage of another special-teams issue when Reid Forrest punted the ball away from the coverage team. Jeremy Ross took it back for a 76-yard touchdown. Riley's touchdown pass came after the kickoff went out of bounds to give the Bears possession at their own 40.

"We're just killing ourselves with errant kicks," WSU color commentator Jim Walden said during the broadcast. "This might be the worst special-teams play we've had in a long time."

WULFF DID NOT MINCE WORDS post-game on the special teams performance. The Cougar team top to bottom is very young, with an inordinate number of freshmen and sophomores on offense, defense and yes, special teams. But Wulff says it's time for youth and veteran alike, regardless, to start playing better.

"It just put us on our heels," he said of the special teams gaffes. "It's time to grow up."

PERHAPS THE ONLY bright spot for the Cougars (1-6, 0-5) in an otherwise nightmarish first quarter came on a 24-yard field goal by Nico Grasu. It was the first time this season that the Cougs have scored in the opening 15 minutes. But it also came after a procedure penalty on third-and-goal from the Cal 1 cost WSU a possible touchdown.

The Bears extended their lead to 35-3 early in the second quarter when Best scored on a 61-yard touchdown run.

"You cannot let this man run downhill," Walden said. "He hit that about 100 miles per hour."

At that point, it appeared Cal might dominate the Cougars in similar fashion to last year's 66-3 victory at Martin Stadium. But WSU forced the Bears to punt for the first time on their next possession. The Cougars could not take advantage as the drive stalled and Grasu's 49-yard field goal attempt hit the crossbar.

"What else can happen to the WSU Cougars in 2009?" Robertson asked.

THAT IS WHEN some of the Cougars' young players began to emerge. After forcing Cal to punt again, Tuel needed just one play to hit junior Johnny Forzani, who had a team-high 116 yards on four receptions, for a 68-yard touchdown.

"I laid it out there and he made a fantastic catch," Tuel said.

Walden pointed to the importance of improved health along the offensive line for creating the pass protection on the play. Junior left guard Zack Williams played for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain Sept. 12 against Hawaii.

"He threw a beautiful pass," Walden said. "It's amazing what you can do when you have time. No matter what happens I love the job this offensive line has done protecting Jeff Tuel."

WSU cut its deficit to 35-17 at halftime when Tuel found freshman classmate Gino Simone for a 19-yard touchdown. The score capped a eight-play, 75-yard WSU drive.

THE COUGS' color man in the booth was effusive in his praise of the 5-foot-11, 174-pound Simone. WSU has produced future NFL wide receivers such as Michael Bumpus, Devard Darling and Jason Hill in recent years, but Walden likes Simone as much as anyone. Simone finished with 86 yards on six receptions.

"Before he's done here -- barring injury -- I predict he will be the (program's) all-time leading wide receiver," Walden said. "This guy really has got the stuff."

THE COUGARS, HOWEVER, WERE not able to duplicate that offensive success as they were shut out in the second half and twice failed to convert fourth downs in the red zone. The opening drive was particularly galling to Wulff as a false-start penalty and a Tuel sack put the Cougars at second-and-25. Tuel completed consecutive 12-yard passes, but the team still was forced to punt.

"Just that inconsistency as a coach drives you nuts," Wulff said. "I thought there was no question we could've scored on that opening drive. It could've been a different game."

With the exception of a 37-yard run by true freshman Carl Winston -- the longest by WSU this season -- the Cougars had little success running the ball. Winston had 51 yards on eight carries, while his teammates combined for four more yards. They averaged just two yards per carry.

THE COUGARS ALSO were flagged 13 times for 115 yards. Among those were a few personal fouls.

"You've got to understand you can't carry it beyond the play," Wulff said.

Best, who had 158 yards on 13 carries, scored his second touchdown on a 2-yard carry in the third quarter and Shane Vereen added the Bears' final score on a 7-yard run in the final period. Cal finished with 557 yards of total offense.

"We have to get better at tackling," WSU senior safety Xavier Hicks said.

Despite that, Walden remains bullish on the Cougars' future.

"You have to get excited if you're a Cougar. If you're not, you're worrying too much about the result of today," said Walden.

WSU plays its final nonconference game of the season at 4:30 p.m. Saturday against Notre Dame in San Antonio.

"We've just go to start believing more," Tuel said. "When we put it all together, we're a really good football team."

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