Post-ND: Can a healthy Ayers improve OL play?

STEVEN AYERS

THE OFFENSIVE LINE has not been a strong point for the Cougars this season, even with both starting guards back this past game. WSU coach Paul Wulff bemoaned the lack of protection quarterback Jeff Tuel received in Saturday's 40-14 loss against Notre Dame in San Antonio. But if there are changes on an o-line that allowed five sacks against the Irish, Wulff said they will be on one specific side.

That is because Wulff is hopeful that sophomore Steven Ayers finally will be back at full health. Ayers suffered a sprained ankle Sept. 26 at USC and played in a backup role against Notre Dame.

Wulff said Ayers likely will compete against junior right tackle Micah Hannam or he could play either guard spot.

"I definitely think he'll be a lot better," he said. "If he plays at the top of his game, he can really help us."

After reviewing the game, Wulff was not pleased with the output of the running game.

"On offense, we made too many mistakes that didn't allow us to get into rhythm or take pressure off our defense," he said. "There were a number of plays that could've gone for 20 or 40 yards in our run game. We were so close. We were inches away from having some really big plays."

SENIOR DWIGHT TARDY was the exception as he rushed for a season-high 72 yards on eight carries, though a good portion came later in the game.

"Dwight just ran really aggressive and with confidence," he said. "When he runs really hard, he's an effective runner. We need that from Dwight all the time."

One adjustment might be the more frequent insertion of true freshman fullback Jared Byers. The Pullman High graduate initially was a walk-on linebacker, but switched to fullback earlier in the season.

The running game performed better against the Irish when Byers was in the game.

"If you go back and watch the film ... he really played well," Wulff said. "You can expect to see him in there. I'm very excited about that young guy."

BUT EVEN WHEN WSU was able to run the ball, it received little production from the passing game. Tuel, a true freshman making his fourth start, completed 12 of 23 passes for 104 yards along with a couple of touchdowns and interceptions. The Cougars' leading receiver was senior tight end Tony Thompson with three catches for 27 yards.

"There were guys open all over the place. Jeff didn't have a lot of time. Then we would have a holding penalty that made it even tougher," said Wulff.

The defense did not fare much better and might have suffered another significant loss in the secondary. Junior safety Chima Nwachukwu sustained an injury to his ankle -- Wulff is not sure if it is an ankle sprain or a high ankle sprain -- and is unlikely to play this week, at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Arizona. Wulff said it is not yet known how long Nwachukwu, who now is wearing a protective boot, will be out.

If Nwachukwu is unavailable against the Wildcats, Wulff said redshirt freshman Jay Matthews likely will start. Another season-long starter, junior cornerback Brandon Jones, is expected to play against Arizona though he too was dinged up Saturday.

Wulff said Jones left the game due to a bothersome bone in his foot, but an X-ray did not reveal a break. He had the foot taped at halftime and returned in the second half.

THE IRISH PRODUCED 592 yards of total offense, and despite some gaudy tackle numbers, Wulff was not impressed with the performance by his linebackers. Senior Jason Stripling had 13 tackles, sophomore Alex Hoffman-Ellis added 12 and Mike Ledgerwood had six..

"Our linebackers struggled at times," he said. "We just bounced off the players. We didn't tackle great."

Wulff felt some of those issues at linebacker and on the defensive line simply had to do with Notre Dame. He felt the Irish played well, particularly on the offensive line that outweighed WSU's defensive front on average by almost 50 pounds.

"We didn't fit in our gaps all the time," he said. "We got overwhelmed by their offensive line. They got after us pretty good."

Junior Toby Turpin, who twice has been bumped from the starting lineup, was an exception. Wulff felt the 6-foot-5, 284-pound junior played well.

"I thought Toby Turpin played a very good ball game; maybe his best," he said. "He was active."

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