Washington State's Tuel given room to run
It turns out that Washington State had the Tuel needed to win all along. As in sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel.
The decision to make Tuel part of the team's dormant rushing attack provided the weapon the Cougars needed to record their first Pac-10 win since 2008. Tuel passed for 157 yards and rushed for 79 more Saturday as Washington State beat Oregon State 31-14.
The win snapped a 16-game conference losing streak and Tuel was named the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week, the first WSU player to win the honor since 2008.
Now the Cougars (2-9, 1-7) have two weeks of open dates before finishing the season on Dec. 4 at home against archrival Washington.
Coach Paul Wulff said coaches did not want Tuel running out of the pocket early in the year.
''We wanted to keep him healthy,'' Wulff said. ''We told him to hand the ball off.''
But that clearly wasn't working, as the Cougars were one of the nation's poorest running teams. Defenses became so confident that they also began to slow WSU's potent passing attack.
''As we got down the stretch, we figured we could use Jeff in the running game to help our offense,'' Wulff said. ''The decision happened heading into the Cal game.''
Tuel said offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy gave him the green light.
''I was just taking what they gave me,'' Tuel said. ''If stuff wasn't open, I looked down, saw places to run and just took them.''
Wulff said Tuel will get a chance to run against Washington.
And why not? Washington State converted 10 of 17 third down chances at Oregon State, with Tuel accounting for seven of those, four on the ground and three through the air. The Cougars controlled the ball for more than 40 minutes.
The offensive fireworks were a welcome relief for WSU fans, who have endured perhaps the worst three-year stretch in the program's history.
In the past, even when the Cougars were losing, they always seemed to have the ability to score touchdowns on big plays. That disappeared the past two years, when they were a combined 3-22 and ranked near the bottom of the nation in both offense and defense. A rotating cast of quarterbacks - Gary Rogers, Kevin Lopina, Marshall Lobbestael and, last year, Tuel - did not have the protection to pass effectively and kept getting knocked out of games.
Last year's team was outscored by an average score of 38-12, and scored just 18 touchdowns in 12 games.
This year they've scored 26 touchdowns, and the big play is back. Marquess Wilson has an 83-yard pass reception and Jeffrey Solomon a 57-yarder. Wilson, a freshman, is averaging 19 yards per catch, while Daniel Blackledge is averaging 14 yards on 23 receptions. Clutch receiver Jared Karstetter leads with 54 receptions for 587 yards and six touchdowns.
Tuel has completed 194 of 331 passes (58.6 percent) for 2,452 yards, with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and the Cougars rank 44th in the nation in passing.
But that one-dimensional offense wasn't winning games.
''You've got to still run the ball in this league,'' Wulff said.
Frustrated by an average of just 76 yards rushing per game, coaches decided to unleash Tuel. The result was a 20-13 loss to the Bears, and then the big win at Oregon State.
''He made decisions to get first downs with his feet,'' Wulff said. ''That was really the key.''
Tuel has gained 415 positive yards on 118 rushes, although subtracting sacks leaves him with 179 net yards, still the third-best total on the team. James Montgomery leads with 400 yards and a 3.6 average.
It's understandable the Cougars were reluctant to risk Tuel, who at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds is not built to take major punishment. He appeared in six games as a freshman last year, five as the starter, before a knee injury knocked him out for the season.
Tuel said he does not fear being injured.
''You're going to get hit, face it,'' he said.
Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said he was impressed by Tuel last year, when the freshman threw for 175 yards and two touchdowns against the Sun Devils.
''He gets the (ball) in position for guys to make plays,'' Erickson said.