Wulff wants Cougs to overcome slow starts

IT'S A QUESTION that comes up at least once per week during WSU coach Paul Wulff's news conferences. The inquiries relate to numbers.

Specifically, the Cougars (1-7 overall, 0-5 conference) have been outscored 121-3 in the opening quarter this season. Wulff has reiterated throughout the season that some of that is a result of young players being too excited at the start of games. But he also said it was a factor in removing freshman Jeff Tuel's redshirt.

"That's part of the reason why you see a new quarterback ... someone who can compete at the Pac-10 level," he said Tuesday.

Wulff was clear that he has not given up on Marshall Lobbestael. The sophomore tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last year against Oregon State, but returned this year and guided WSU to its lone victory -- a 30-27 come-from-behind overtime win Sept. 19 against Southern Methodist -- but he has not played the last two weeks.

Lobbestael refused to use it as an excuse but it was also clear that he was not at 100 percent.

Lobbestael, displaced by Tuel as the starter Oct. 3 at Oregon, has completed 49 of 105 passes for 475 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions this year. Wulff said he would not hesitate to play Lobbestael again this season.

"Marshall has gotten a lot better the last two weeks," he said. "You can really see him starting to grow. We know he wasn't playing at close to the level he's capable of."

Wulff said part of the reason to make Tuel the starter was based on his running ability. He was fearful that Lobbestael would be more susceptible to sustaining an injury behind an injury-plagued offensive line.

BUT TUEL ALSO is taking hits as the offensive line surrendered five sacks in last week's 40-14 loss against Notre Dame. And the Wildcats, whom WSU plays at 12:30 p.m. on Fox College Sports Atlantic, rank 29th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with an average of 2.57 sacks per game. The Cougars are allowing a nation-worst five sacks per game, with the o-line having been slammed with injuries this season.

"We know that Arizona has excellent speed and they're going to get to the quarterback," Wulff said. "If you're going to play quarterback, you have to expect to get hit. That's football. We just have to do the best we can to be smart schematically."

Wulff said the need to play smart includes everyone on offense. He cited the first play of the Notre Dame game, where Tuel did not have the ability to get the ball to open receivers because of a blown blocking assignment. WSU followed that with a holding penalty.

"A lot of times, we have 10 guys doing it right and one guy who's not," Wulff said. "It messes up the whole play."

Tuel is operating almost exclusively out of the shotgun formation now. The Cougars do that to help avoid the pass rush, but Wulff said he would like more balance in the future between that and the quarterback being under center "as we continue to recruit our players."

FOR NOW, WULFF just wants to see better play on the offensive line. Sophomore B.J. Guerra and junior Zack Williams both were back at guard for a second consecutive game after missing several weeks with injuries, but Wulff said "they didn't play as well as they're capable of."

Redshirt freshman Tyson Pencer, who sustained an ankle injury against ASU, returned last week and played all but the first series at left tackle. He now is listed as the starter at that position over true freshman Alex Reitnouer, who started three games in an emergency role despite weighing about 260 pounds.

"Alex is doing a lot right now," Wulff said. "It's hard for him to start every game in this conference with where he is physically."

Pencer, who is listed at 6-foot-7, 297 pounds, has prototypical size for the position but had a rough go of it in San Antonio. But Wulff said there are other reasons why he will start.

"You could see as each (practice) day came along, he was getting more comfortable," he said. "He did some good things early, so we went with them."

Sophomore Steven Ayers, with a lingering ankle injury since Sept. 26 at USC, might return to the starting lineup this week. Right tackle Micah Hannam has started every game at that position, but Wulff said those two will battle in practice for the first-string spot again this week.

WULFF WAS ASKED during a Tuesday morning conference call if he saw parallels between his situation at WSU and the one Mike Stoops inherited at Arizona. The Wildcats were in turmoil after a player revolt against former coach John Mackovic eventually led to his 2003 midseason firing. Arizona finished 2-10 that season with Mike Hankwitz finishing out the year as coach.

Stoops guided Arizona to 3-8 records during his first two seasons, but the point differential between the Wildcats and their opponents fell dramatically. During Stoops' first season, Arizona was outscored by 111 points. In 2005, that number fell to 38 points. The Wildcats again were outscored by 36 points in 2006, but have outdone their opponents by 14 and 199 points the last two seasons. They finished 6-6 in '06 and were 5-7 and 8-5 the last two seasons.

Wulff said Stoops went through a similar process of having little experience and the departure of players who did not fit into the program. Arizona advanced to a bowl game last year for the first time in a decade.

"I think there's definitely some parallels," he said. "It takes patience. You bring in high-school guys with young character."

Wulff has mentioned several times throughout the season that he sees an improvement in the attitudes of the players this season. As noted this season, 77 of the 114 players on the roster are either in their first or second year in the program, and are looking to improve rather than focusing on the team's struggles.

"There have been a number of players that have left the program that were holding us back the first year," Wulff said. "We've grown up in a lot of areas. They understand where we're at and they know we have a lot of work to do."

THE PLAYERS HAVE had no shortage of time together as this will be the third straight game away from Martin Stadium. After Arizona, two of the final three games are at home.

"Being on the road together is positive," Wulff said. "There isn't as many distractions. If you have success in those environments, it builds confidence."

  • Junior safety Chima Nwachukwu remains questionable for the Arizona game because of an ankle injury suffered against Notre Dame. Wulff praised Nwachukwu for his offseason work in the weight room, which he believes has resulted in his improved tackling this season. If Nwachukwu is unable to play, Wulff said redshirt freshman Jay Matthews will start.

  • Wulff said there is little comparison between the offenses Arizona and Oregon run. He said the Ducks' offense essentially is an option system led by quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Wildcats quarterback, 6-foot-5 sophomore Nick Foles, is not expected to run. But Wulff is impressed with his passing ability. Foles, who replaced Matt Scott earlier this season, has completed 138 of 191 passes for 1,399 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions this year.

  • Pullman High graduate Jared Byers is one of six true freshmen playing for the Cougars this season. But Byers is the only walk-on among the group. Wulff said he participated in WSU's summer camp in the past and was invited to tryout for the team. He switched from linebacker to fullback earlier and is seeing more playing time. Wulff said the coaching staff looked at junior Marcus Richmond and sophomore Logwone Mitz to fill the role of the blocking back until Byers emerged.

    "He's a tough kid who has some physical ability as well," he said. "Jared has stepped in and has immediately made an impact."

  • Asked about one improvement he noticed against the Irish and Wulff cited the special-teams play. He thought the punt and kickoff coverage teams performed particularly well.

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