Cougars eye corner-turn at San Diego State

September, 13, 2011
9/13/11
4:42
PM ET
It would be easy to wildly extrapolate program transformation at Washington State based on a 2-0 start. Sure, the competition was terrible, but the Cougars asserted complete dominance on both sides of the ball.

The term "well-oiled machine" came to mind for a team that, to be kind, has looked in recent years like a rusted-out, red pickup truck that had been abandoned along a Palouse highway.

But it seems justifiable to take the bridle off the enthusiasm because things were feeling completely lost just one quarter into the season.

[+] EnlargeMarshall Lobbestael
AP Photo/Dean HareMarshall Lobbestael has been a surprise for the Cougars after they lost starter Jeff Tuel.
Let's face it: It's likely that a majority of Cougars fans thought the year was cooked when promising starting quarterback Jeff Tuel broke his clavicle against Idaho State.

Senior backup Marshall Lobbestael had experience, yes, but it was completing-less-than-50-percent-of-his-passes-and-throwing-more-interceptions-than-touchdowns experience and not the good kind.

So when Lobbestael went all Andrew Luck on Idaho State and then UNLV, well, please excuse the Cougs for grinning ear-to-ear and allowing themselves to be flushed with hope.

Lobbestael now ranks third in the nation in passing efficiency. He's completed 74.5 percent of his throws with five touchdowns and no interceptions while averaging 296 yards per game. And this isn't just dink-and-dunk. He's averaging 11.6 yards per completion.

When asked if he expected such efficiency from Lobbestael, coach Paul Wulff answered honestly: "Probably not." It's likely, in fact, that few players or coaches felt confidence when Tuel went down. Lobbestael had to win them over. By doing so he would restore the brittle confidence of a team that felt like it would be better this fall, but that still had the failure of just two conference wins over the past three seasons looming in the back of their collective minds.

"Marshall, to be quite honest, by his performance, has put everybody at ease," Wulff said. "That's where it starts."

The competition level will take a significant step up at San Diego State (2-0) on Saturday. Even though head coach Brady Hoke headed off to Michigan, the Aztecs welcomed back 13 starters from a nine-win 2010 team, including eight on offense. That offense is anchored by four senior offensive linemen and one of the nation's best quarterback-running back combinations in Ryan Lindley and Ronnie Hillman. Lindley passed for 3,830 yards and 28 touchdowns last year, while Hillman rushed for 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Not only are the Aztecs no Idaho State, they also are at home. The Cougars have one road win over the past three seasons.

But if the Cougars can steal one, a 3-0 start would have them heading into Pac-12 play halfway to bowl eligibility, which almost certainly would save Wulff's job.

The first thing Wulff talks about with his resurgent team is chemistry. "Players are all on the same page for the first time," he said. The second is experience. "They're just older. No body in college football wins with youth," he said.

The third area of improvement is defense. While the offense took big steps forward in 2010, the defense still lagged behind. Through two games, however, the Cougs are No. 2 in the conference in both scoring defense (14 ppg) and total defense (305.5 ypg).

Here's a guess that things are trending up on defense because Wulff upgraded his coaching staff this offseason with Chris Tormey coaching linebackers and Todd Howard the defensive line.

Still, Lobbestael's performance thus far has to be considered the surprising glue between the disparate parts. He certainly fits in with the program's blue-collar image.

"He's the first guy if the locker room is messed up and there's tape on the ground, he's picking it up during training camp and putting it in garbage," Wulff said.

Still, the program certainly hasn't arrived, and there are plenty of potential pratfalls ahead. For one, the Pac-12 schedule, particularly playing in the North Division, will be arduous. Five of the nine conference games are on the road, too. Even with a 3-0 start, getting three more wins won't be a sure-thing.

Further, how might the Cougs react if they lose at San Diego State? Might self-doubt creep back in? And if the Cougs string together a couple of losses, then the chirping about Wulff's job security will get louder and more distracting.

Wulff said he's aware of the "win-now" expectations -- "I'm not a dummy," he said when asked about the negative chatter -- but he also said "I don't get too caught up in it."

He sees a bright future for a team that is still young. But he's also starting to feel pretty good about the present.

"We're on our way," he said.

Ted Miller | email

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