Spotty protection for Tuel spells Cougar loss

IT ALWAYS COMES down to one factor against a team coached by June Jones: points on a consistent basis. And while Washington State's defense was inconsistent at times during Saturday's 35-21 loss at Southern Methodist, it was the Wazzu offense that did not produce nearly enough to enable the Cougars to win. And any assessment of the offense on this day must begin with the line.

Sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel was under siege throughout the afternoon, particularly by sophomore linebacker Ja'Gared Davis, who had 1 ½ sacks and 3 ½ tackles for loss.

WSU made wholesale changes to its offensive line during the offseason, including replacing position coach Harold Etheridge with Steve Morton and signing junior-college transfers David Gonzalez and Wade Jacobson. The Cougars allowed 96 sacks during coach Paul Wulff's first two seasons, and Saturday's game felt like a continuation of that.

When Tuel was not trying to throw, the line again failed to open many holes for the running backs. The Cougars finished with just 66 yards on 28 carries.

ON ONE OF the rare occasions where the line provided good protection, Tuel showed his potential by finding true freshman wide receiver Marquess Wilson for a 68-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Wilson had six receptions for 134 yards, while Tuel completed 18 of 33 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns.

"You have a good quarterback there," noted CBS College Sports color commentator Mike Leach, who guided Texas Tech to an 84-43 record from 2000-09.

There also was Wilson. The Tulare, Calif., product again showed why he is the most explosive receiver to hit the Palouse since Jason Hill in 2003.

But Hill strictly was a special-teams player as a true freshman; the Cougs had better, more polished receivers ahead of him his frosh year. Wilson, meanwhile, has had two 100-yard performances in three games. If the offensive line develops some cohesion, it could be fun to watch Tuel and Wilson develop together.

BUT WITHOUT CONSISTENT protection, the Mustangs (2-1) were able to regain possession quickly in the third quarter with two touchdown drives that resulted in too much distance for the young WSU (1-2) offense to overcome. And a 14-14 halftime tie, a half were WSU did some good things seen far too little the last two-plus years, was ultimately wasted.

"Just a lack of execution on our part," Tuel said during a postgame radio interview. "It obviously was very frustrating because we felt like that was our game to win."

It was. But SMU broke a 14-all halftime stalemate with a 12-play drive that culminated with a 10-yard touchdown pass from sophomore Kyle Padron to classmate Darius Johnson with 5 minutes, 1 second left in the third.

The Cougs opened three-and-out. And the Mustangs took over at the WSU 44-yard line. Two plays later, Padron found senior Aldrick Robinson for a 16-yard touchdown pass to extend their lead to 28-14 with 1:18 remaining in the third.

The real killer? SMU outgained the Cougars 112-14 in total offense during the third quarter.

"We need to score more points and help our defense out," WSU junior wide receiver Jared Karstetter said after the game.

WSU drove to around the SMU 25-yard line twice in the fourth quarter trailing by 14. Each time they turned it over on downs, electing not to try a field goal when down by two TDs.

BUT AT LEAST it felt like there was some progress. Karstetter was shining bright in the first half. His 4-yard reception from Tuel with 54 seconds remaining in the opening quarter marked the first time this season that Cougars have scored points, let alone a touchdown, in the first 15 minutes.

WSU might have even taken the lead in the second quarter, but a false-start penalty by sophomore tight end Skylar Stormo negated senior Nico Grasu's field goal. Grasu's second attempt -- still only from 27 yards out after the penalty -- sailed slightly left of the goal post.

But even after Padron found Robinson wide open for a 67-yard touchdown pass on the ensuing drive, the Cougars never let the game get out of reach.

Redshirt freshman Jamal Atofau forced a Johnson fumble on a punt return -- he was blocked into the return man -- and it was recovered by sophomore Kyle McCartney in the end zone to tie the game in the second quarter.

"We're moving the ball," Wulff said at halftime. "We've just got to get it into the end zone."

With the exception of the late touchdown, the Cougars were unable to do that against SMU throughout the second half, but they showed some of the progression that Wulff frequently talks about in other facets of the game.

Now, that play needs to carry over into the Pac-10, where they open at noon Saturday against USC at Martin Stadium.

NOTABLE:

KEY STAT:

The Mustangs racked up four sacks and nine tackles-for-loss

CATCH OF THE DAY:

True freshman Marquess Wilson hauled in a beautifully thrown pass by sophomore Jeff Tuel for a 68-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

ODD ATTIRE:

Southern Methodist coach June Jones seemed to forget that he was coaching a school in Dallas when he sported a green lei around his neck. Jones guided the University of Hawaii from 1999-07 before leaving from SMU.

NEXT UP:

The Cougars host USC at noon Saturday to open Pac-10 play at Martin Stadium. WSU has lost seven consecutive meetings against the Trojans since its dramatic 30-27 overtime win in 2002 in Pullman. USC defeated Minnesota on Saturday to improve to 3-0 on the season.

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