Cougs find their left tackle

IT WAS ONE OF the top storylines coming into the game -- afterwards there was hardly a word said about it. And that's great news for the Cougars.

John Fullington, (6-5, 268), made his first start at left tackle on Saturday for the Cougs. Sure, the true freshman made some mistakes. So do fifth year senior All-Pac-10 left tackles. On balance, though, Fullington was nothing short of rock solid.

Time after time against Stanford, Cougar Nation saw tangible evidence of why Paul Wulff has been raving about Fullington ever since fall camp.

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His first step is quick as all get-out -- he's got some nastiness to his play but he moves like a dancer. In passing situations, he got into proper position quickly. And on a day when Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel dropped back 36 times, Fullington stoned his man time and time again.

But it all starts with that first step, and Fullington's is quick enough that it enabled him to show off textbook form against a pass rusher going wide, coming inside or trying to bull his way straight ahead. Textbook.

All this from a lightly recruited guy out of North Mason High in Belfair, Wash. who had no other Pac-10 offers. None.

WSU DIDN'T RUN the ball much on Saturday -- Stanford killed the Cougars in time of possession, running 75 offensive plays to a mere 51 for Wazzu. Trailing throughout, as you might expect, WSU running backs carried the pigskin on but 15 of those 51 plays. Still, a glimmer of hope for the Cougar o-line and offense, as Washington State running backs averaged 4.93 yards per carry.

The Cougs didn't try to run a lot to Fullington's side but on those 15 rushing attempts, far more often than not, Fullington handled his man and assignments well.

Stanford entered as the No. 12 team in the nation. Fullington (6-5, 268) and the Cougs went up against a veteran, very physical Stanford defense. Stanford's starting defensive ends, Fullington's primary adversaries, actually outweighed him -- Matt Masifilo is listed at 280 pounds, Brian Bulcke at 275. And so headed in, from the WSU fan perspective and based on recent past experience, the matchup seemed ominous.

Cougar fans the past two years have watched resignedly as defensemen blew by the Cougars on the edge, (as well as up the middle by overloading the A-gap), in large part as a result of massive injuries and WSU being forced to play youth. Not on Saturday. Jeff Tuel was sacked twice, once at the end of the third quarter, again at the end of the fourth.

And no, Fullington wasn't perfect. On one Cougar running play, he got a piece of his man but didn't pick off the assigned linebacker nearly well enough. And with less than two minutes to play, Stanford suddenly overloaded his side, sending two men racing at him. Fullington, knowing the Cougs didn't have any backfield help on his side, hesitated between the two oncoming pass rushers just for a split second before taking the inside man. And that slightest of hesitations enabled his man to gain the advantage upfield and get to Tuel.

But all in all, for a 268-pound true freshman who is still learning, and going against some of the best the Pac-10 has to offer, Fullington wasn't just good. He was damned good.

Under normal circumstances, it might be premature to say Washington State has found their left tackle. He's still just a true freshman after all, and with two starts under his belt -- one at left tackle, one at right tackle.

But Fullington, as he showed again on Saturday, is anything but ordinary.

NOTABLE NOTE:
None of this is to say David Gonzales didn't do good work at left tackle before he was lost for the season with a broken arm -- he did. Indeed, he was WSU's best pass blocker the first half of 2010, despite it being his first year in the Pac-10 and straight out of junior college. Assuming he's 100 percent by the spring, he figures to be firmly in the starting mix competition whether that's on the right or left side of the line.

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