September 26, 2008

UO-WSU guest column

The only sure thing about this weekend's Oregon-Wazzu football game is that each team will start a quarterback - but that is the abrupt end of the known quantities for this position for this game. Which quarterback will start for each team may not be known and how well that quarterback will perform is open to interpretation.

For the Washington State University football team, who starts or plays at the quarterback position is only one question in a long list of questions that need to be answered after the first four games of the season. The Cougars have won one game against three losses but that lone victory - against Portland State University last week - was against a Division I-AA [now FCS] opponent and still leaves WSU winless against a Division I opponent, much less an opponent from the Pac-10.

But perhaps worst of all for the Cougars was the fact that they lost their top two quarterbacks in the victory over the Vikings. First, junior starting quarterback Kevin Lopina was lost in the first half with a bruised shoulder when he was blind-sided by a blitzing PSU linebacker. Then, shortly into the second half, redshirt senior Gary Rogers was lost when he absorbed a late hit from blitzing Viking safety. Rogers is now out for the season after suffering cervical spine fracture that will require a minimum of recovery period of three months and Lopina's status is day-to-day and is not expected to be known with any degree of certainty until at least mid-week.

Unless Lopina can make a miraculous recovery in the next two or three days, that leaves third-string redshirt freshman Marshall Lobbestael as the starting quarterback by default. Rogers had the Cougars' only touchdown passes of the season until the second half of the PSU game when Lobbestael tossed two of his own to receiver Jeshua Anderson and tight end Devin Frischknecht.

Head coach Paul Wulff has installed his version of the spread option at Wazzu but has only opened half the playbook to his offense while they learn on the run during the course of the season. Lobbestael, operating as the third-string quarterback for the season until this week, has not been exposed to running even that amount of the playbook in practice or live action. However, Wulff, said he was impressed with Lobbestael's "feel for the game" when he was pressed into action against PSU and felt that he did handle the situation with a maturity beyond his redshirt freshman status.

Lobbestael's backup is walk-on backup punter Dan Wagner, who quarterbacked at Jesuit High School in Portland two years ago and he would be followed by the redshirting frosh J.T. Levenseller - the son of the Cougars' longtime receivers coach, Mike Levenseller. If forced to go beyond that, it is possible that punter Reid Forrest could be an option to consider rather than burning Levenseller's redshirt.

The real issue for the Cougars on offense is on the offensive line. The two hits which took out the two quarterbacks were explained by Wulff as a missed read by Lopina [who failed to direct a running back to stop the blindside blitz] and a late hit on Rogers - neither, technically, the fault of the offensive line. But Wulff has not been blindsided by the offensive line's performance so far this season. A former offensive lineman himself for the Cougars under Dennis Erickson in the late 1980s, Wulff saw the quarterback position constantly under siege in the first three games of the year and made specific changes to try to account for that against PSU - moving tackle Vaughn Lesuma to guard and opening his position up for grabs, which was eventually claimed by redshirt sophomore Joe Eppele, who was making his first start of his career against the Vikings.

Defensively, the Cougars run defense had been torched in the first three games until they shut down the PSU offense to eight yards rushing. But the Vikings employ the run-and-shoot offense which does not place a premium on rushing the ball, so the Cougars' rush defense problems will likely be an issue until they have proven they can stop a conference opponent from rushing the ball - and their next eight opponents, beginning with Oregon on Saturday, are all Pac-10 opponents until they finish the regular season at Hawai'i in late November.

The return of junior safety Xavier Hicks Jr. from a three-game suspension for off-field legal problems has bolstered the defensive secondary in both rush and pass defense. Hicks' return allowed Wulff to move Alfonso Jackson back to safety, where he had played last year before Wulff moved him to corner in the spring and first three games of this year, and the combination of the hard-hitting Jackson with the equally hard-hitting Hicks, has given the Cougars a more experienced and somewhat stronger secondary unit. Pass defense is also getting better in front of the safeties as linebackers Greg Trent and Hallston Higgins accounted for both of Wazzu's picks in the game against the Vikings.

Special teams play was horrendous in the first game of the year [a loss to Oklahoma State] but has improved gradually since then. Punter Forrest was third in the conference last week and has shown an early knack for pinning the ball inside the 20 while kickoff specialist Patrick Rooney has been able to both get distance and place the ball in designated spots in his duties, though consistent kickoff coverage remains elusive.

In the end, no matter who Mike Bellotti decides to start at quarterback or who plays most of the game, the key to Wazzu success is not through the air but firmly on the ground - the Cougars will have to find a way to stop the Ducks from effectively rushing the ball in order to have a chance to win on Saturday.

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