When Washington State visits UCLA Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, the Cougars will bring along an offense that is No. 4 in the nation in passing, No. 9 in total offense and No. 10 in scoring.
Imagine how good those numbers would be if they had their starting quarterback.
That could be the case against the Bruins as Jeff Tuel, out since breaking his clavicle in the first quarter of the season opener, has been cleared to practice this week and could make his return.
It's not as if the surprising Cougars have missed him. With Marshall Lobbestael filling in for Tuel, Washington State is averaging 379 yards passing per game, 518.5 yards per game and 44.5 yards a game. Granted, the Cougars have piled up those numbers against a couple of shoddy defenses in Idaho State and UNLV, but San Diego State is No. 9 in the nation in pass defense and Washington State had 368 yards passing in that game.
It's helped the Cougars to a 3-1 start, quite a turnaround for a team that was 2-10 last season and was No. 106 in the nation in scoring.
"Obviously they have stayed the course," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "They’ve let young players grow in the program and now they’ve reached some level of maturity and they’re making plays. So, it’s no accident that good things are starting to happen for them."
Tuel was the main bright spot for the team last season. He passed for 2,780 yards and was expected to break out in this, his junior season. He was ill on opening day and didn't start, but felt well enough to enter the game late in the first quarter, but lasted only one series.
Lobbestael didn't miss a beat. A senior who has spent most of his career as a backup, has passed for 1,353 yards and 13 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He is expected to start against UCLA, according to the Seattle Times, with Tuel questionable for the game.
But whoever is throwing the passes, UCLA will have to contend with a stable of productive receivers. Sophomore Marquess Wilson, a 6-3 speedster and 1,000-yard receiver last year, is averaging 137.5 yards receiving a game to rank fourth in the nation. He averages a staggering 26.2 yards per reception and has five touchdowns among his 21 catches. he leads a group of four receivers with 12 or more receptions.
They will also have to contend with a team looking to prove it's impressive start is no fluke and one that has some momentum. Last week, the Cougars overcame a 27-17 deficit in the final five minutes on the road at Colorado. Against UCLA last season, the Bruins took an early 20-7 lead, but Washington State stormed back to take a 28-20 lead before UCLA began to dominate with its run game and won, 42-28.
"They’re an opportunistic team," Neuheisel said. "And we saw that first hand. We know that these kids are hungry, they’re going to keep playing, they’re going to play all 60 minutes. We just have to make sure that we have the same enthusiasm."