PULLMAN — As the youthful Cougars go, Marshall Lobbestael is an old man. He’ll be a fifth-year senior when the 2011 seasons commences - one of but a handful of players still around who were recruited by the old coaching staff. Saturday, after the Cougs wrapped up their second-to-last scrimmage of the spring season, the veteran from Oak Harbor was succinct when asked about the state of the program.
“We’re just playing at a higher level and guys are more committed and we’re moving toward one goal,” said Lobbestael, who completed 3-of-4 passes for 22 yards in Saturday’s 45-minute scrimmage in front of a Mom’s Weekend crowd. The difference in where the program is today from where it was when he was lining up against Portland State as a second-year freshman in 2008 is “night and day,” he said.
“The level of execution we have going on, I just feel like the coaches can trust us more,” he added. “We played competitive last year in big games and this year we know we can make a difference. We can really make an impact in the Pac-12 and turn some heads.”
On Saturday, much of the head turning came courtesy of the Cougar defense. Oh, there was some good work on offense, including Jeff Tuel’s 35-yard scoring aerial to Marquiss Wilson, but on balance it was a day for the defense.
“You have to give them (the defense) a lot of credit,” was a common post-scrimmage refrain from head coach Paul Wulff. Indeed, unlike last week’s scrimmage, they set the tone from the get go.
Part of Wulff’s praise stemmed from the fact two of the D’s strongest players -- linemen Travis Long and Brandon Rankin -- have been sidelined this spring rehabbing shoulders. Yet there were no signs of being undermanned on Saturday.
During the first series of the day, with the No. 1 offense lined up against the No. 1 defense, the D forced a three-and-out after DT Anthony Laurenzi sacked Tuel for a five-yard loss. On the next series, with both second strings matching up, there was another three-and-out, this time with a sack provided by LB Darren Markle.
Markle later recovered a fumble forced by defensive back Anthony Martinez on a tooth-rattling hit of receiver Isiah Myers.
Combined, the first- and second-unit offense could muster nary a first down in the scrimmage’s first four possessions.
“They played hard and fast. I think in our first scrimmage the offense came out real quick and the defense had to try and catch up. I thought it reversed a little bit today. Emotionally and the defense came out set the tone and to their credit they came out and made enough plays to keep the offense in check,” Wulff said.
The Cougar O finally clicked on the fifth series of the day, putting together a 7-play 70-yard TD drive that ended in perfection when Tuel was afford a ton of protection and fired a gem to Wilson down the left sideline for the 35-yard score. Tuel had a solid if otherwise unspectacular day, going 9-of-14 for 113 yards, the one TD, plus one INT.
“Jeff can throw the deep ball well,” Wulff said. “We obviously need to make sure we utilize that strength of his and we have some guys that can go deep. That’s something we just have to continue to be a part of our offense.”
That drive took some of the sting out of the offense’s inability to replicate it’s work on the ground in last Saturday’s scrimmage, when Rickey Galvin ran wild. This time around, the rushing game managed just 52 yards on 24 carries. Leon Brooks was the principal back, carrying the ball 10 times for 21 yard and a TD, followed by Galvin (four carries for 17 yards) and Logwone Mitz (seven attempts for 8 yards and a score).
Defensive tackles Laurenzi and Toni Pole had a big say in those modest rushing numbers.
Laurenzi got things started with his series-ending sack on the opening drive, and the two had plenty of tackles the rest of the way. Pressure on QBs was consistent throughout as well.
Another DT who enjoyed a nice day was Steven Hoffart. The Butte JC transfer was flying to the ball and on one particular play really showed his athleticism. Galvin caught a screen pass and looked to have nothing but open field ahead when Hoffart sprinted from the opposite side of the line and dove full extension to tackle Galvin for only a five-yard gain.
Pole said part of the defense’s improved play could be attributed to Brian Cain, a noted sports psychologist, who addressed the team Friday.
“We were given an inspirational speech yesterday and he gave us kind of a different perspective on how we should play,” Pole said. “He told us we need to work on the daily things and build off of that. So now we can just be happy with today, we need to build from this and get better.”
Regardless, the message appeared to sink in not only with the defensive linemen, the defensive backs as well. Near the end of practice, cornerback Aire Justin picked off a Tuel pass. It was Justin’s second in as many weeks. On the play, with the both the first unit offense and defense matched up, Tuel fired deep to Bennett Bontemps. He appeared to have him, but Justin laid out full extension to haul in a highlight-reel theft.
Justin wasn’t the only DB with INT on the day. before Tyrone Duckett nabbed a David Gilbertson pass.
“You know we came out here with the mindset that we needed to get better,” said Pole. “This is what spring ball is all about, we come out here and push ourselves and we have to get fired up.”
The Cougars have two more practices – Tuesday and Thursday -- before wrapping up spring ball with the Crimson & Gray Game next Saturday at 3 pm in Spokane. Prior to the scrimmage, WSU will be hosting a Fan Fest Tailgate beginning at 1 p.m. The Fan Fest includes an autograph session with Cougar players, inflatable games for kids, food vendors and a beer garden. The final scrimmage will begin at 3 p.m. and will be televised on SWX and broadcasted on KXLY Radio.
TE Andrei Lintz had a good day blocking in pass protection but also in the passing game. He had two receptions for 29 yards, including an 18-yarder toward the end of practice. He’s locked in a tight battle with Aaron Dunn for a starting spot.
Myers was the top wide receiver on the day with five catches for 42 yards. Wilson caught two for 58 yards and Isiah Barton had 3 for 15.
Mitz only managed 8 rushing yards, but he had 26 in the air, taking a screen pass 26 yards to set up his own 2-yard TD run.
Second-year freshman QB Connor Halliday rebounded nicely from his forgettable performance a week ago. He was 6-of-7 through the air for 49 yards, no TDs and no INTs.
Linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis blocked an Andrew Furney field goal attempt.
Newly hired WSU linebacker coach Chris Tormey was asked how this year’s Cougs compare with the WSU squad he faced at Qwest Field while on the staff at Hawaii in 2009. He said he couldn’t remember the score of that game but smiled and said he knew it was a lot to a little.“I think what you see now is a program that’s starting to establish itself,” Tormey said. “It’s taken a lot of hard work and four recruiting classes and a lot of turnover in the players here to get the group that really believes in the culture of Cougar football. I think we have a group of kids that really believe and are buying into what we’re trying to get done here.”
On a final note, with this being Mom’s Weekend, I'd like to offer a special thank you to my mother Fabiola Albornoz for getting me through college and giving me more love and support than I could ever dream of.