WSU greatly in need of returns from injury

EASTON JOHNSON

WSU'S LACK OF depth was national news a year ago. After injuries decimated the QB position, the Cougars held an open tryout for a scout-team quarterback. Media outlets displayed highlights that featured former Woodinville High signal caller Peter Roberts winning the position. Without the same fanfare, it's a similar situation in '09 as WSU prepares for the Apple Cup.

It's a bad time to have the injury situation reaching epidemic levels (again), with the Apple Cup now six days away.

But how many players the Cougs (1-10, 0-8) have available to suit up on Saturday at Husky Stadium (3:30 p.m.) when they meet the UW (3-7, 2-5) might be one of the bigger stories of the week.

The Cougars had a paltry 13 scholarship defensive players in uniform during Saturday's 42-10 loss against No. 16 Oregon State at Martin Stadium.

That meant Easton Johnson, a wide receiver who walked on to the team last year from California's Feather River Junior College, moved back to safety.

Johnson was a bright spot. He and cornerback Aire Justin both finished second on the team with 10 tackles. Sophomore middle linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis had a team-high 15 tackles. WSU coach Paul Wulff said that no one has been named the team's player of the week yet, but Johnson is obviously a strong defensive candidate.

"I'm pretty proud of him and our players," Paul Wulff said during his Sunday teleconference. "They fought hard against a good, solid team."

ANOTHER WIDE RECEIVER might move to defense again this week to add depth. Wulff said he would look at Colin Huemmer, a senior walk-on from Redmond High School, at safety.

"We're in the middle of some things," said Wulff, adding that he never has faced or heard of a situation similar to the Cougars' lack of players, including last year. "(We are) finding people to play because of our depth issues."

He does not expect junior cornerback Brandon Jones, who suffered a back injury against the Beavers, to play this week.

Two safeties -- redshirt freshman Jay Matthews (shoulder) and junior Chima Nwachukwu (ankle) -- remain questionable for the season finale.

The same applies on the defensive line. Redshirt freshman Dan Spitz (concussion) and junior Bernard Wolfgramm (back) did not play against the Beavers. Wulff said their availability might determine whether the Cougs can play their traditional four-man front or if they go to 3-down, as they did against OSU.

"We've got to lay it out on the field," Wulff said. "We have nothing to rest up for. They've got to fight and go out and play hard."

AFTER REVIEWING THE OSU game tape, Wulff said he felt his team did exactly that on Saturday. WSU allowed 567 yards of total offense, but 192 of those came in the fourth quarter. The WSU defense played 76 snaps, while the Cougar offense ran 56 plays.

"Ultimately in the fourth quarter, our players got pretty tired," Wulff said. "We lost a lot of our gas."

Offensively, Wulff said the Cougs team missed a "tremendous amount" of opportunities. The Cougars converted just 3 of 14 third downs. And they might have to improve without one of their biggest deep threats this week.

Junior wide receiver Johnny Forzani, who has 265 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions, is questionable after suffering a concussion against the Beavers.

True freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel, who suffered a subluxed right kneecap Nov. 7 at Arizona, also remains questionable for the Apple Cup.

ONE AREA THAT pleased Wulff in particular was the offensive line. WSU had allowed 47 sacks entering the game, which ranked 119th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, but surrendered just one against the Beavers, late in the game. Only Miami of Ohio (59) has allowed more this season.

Wulff started his original offensive line that began the season for one of the few times this year, with one exception -- senior Reed Lesuma started in place of junior Zack Williams at left guard. Wulff said Lesuma performed well enough that he might start again against UW.

Wulff said the improved play up front stems from left tackle Steven Ayers, right guard B.J. Guerra and Williams returning from various injuries in recent weeks and finally getting healthy.

"Offensive line..chemistry is so important in there," he said. "Right now our O-line has really come back. I think that's starting to show."

WULFF SAID HE also believes that the line wanted to play hard for the seniors.

"Reed and Kenny (Alfred) are first-rate people," he said. "They're highly respected among their teammates."

In addition to Alfred and Lesuma, Wulff cited the play of junior right tackle Micah Hannam, saying that he had "a much better game".

A REMAINING PROBLEM is getting the quarterbacks to recognize that. Because protection has been consistently poor, Wulff said the quarterbacks, including Lopina this past week, have come to expect constant pressure even if it isn't materializing.

"At times they're going to be a little bit jittery," said Wulff.

NOTABLE NOTE:
  • Wulff was asked how many times he had seen clips of his celebratory dance after junior Nico Grasu's 37-yard field goal secured a 16-13 win last year against the Huskies in double overtime. "Too many," he said. "If we can do that again, that would be great."

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