PULLMAN — For once, coach Mike Leach didn’t have to field questions Monday about who his starting quarterback might be come Saturday.
Washington State senior Jeff Tuel took hold of the position by throwing for a career-high 401 yards and two touchdowns in WSU’s down-to-the-wire 24-17 loss at Stanford.
Leach said he was especially impressed by Tuel’s 43 completions in 60 attempts because he was under siege from a Cardinal defense that collected 10 sacks.
“They generated more pressure than anybody we’ve played all year,” Leach said. “Based on what I’ve seen on film and based on what I’ve experienced, they have the best front in the conference and one of the best fronts in the country. I don’t think there’s any question about that. I thought (Tuel) did respond to the pressure really well, took what they gave him and just kept the ball in play.”
Said Tuel: “We kept ourselves in it. We grew a lot. We just need to build on it.”
WSU needs a win at Utah on Saturday to preserve its infinitesimal hope to be bowl eligible. And the Cougars are also the only Pac-12 football team without a conference victory this season.
“A win is a win,” Tuel said. “That’s the only kind of victory (Leach) knows, is when we have more points than the opponent.”
Last season’s game between WSU and Utah, played in snow and freezing temperatures, helped change the course of the Cougars’ program.
With WSU trailing by three points in the game’s final seconds, Connor Halliday — unknowingly playing with a lacerated liver — completed a pass to Marquess Wilson near the goal line.
Wilson was ruled down at the 1-yard line, WSU settled for a game-tying field goal and eventually lost in overtime, dropping its record to 4-7 and eliminating the Cougars from bowl eligibility.
Replays showed Wilson may have crossed the goal line on that now-infamous play, though no angle provided a conclusive view. Had the play been ruled a touchdown, WSU would have taken at least a 3-point lead with about 17 seconds left and most likely would have won, improved to 5-6 and had at least a shot to earn a bowl bid and potentially save coach Paul Wulff’s job by winning the Apple Cup.
“I’m sure we’d like to get them back for last year, and show that we should have won that one,” Tuel said.
As it was, that loss to Utah more or less sealed Wulff’s fate. He was fired, Leach was hired shortly after and the face of the Cougars’ program is entirely different.
But the Utes (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) aren’t. Not from a style standpoint, anyway.
“It was a tough game; it was a physical game,” senior linebacker Travis Long said. “We’re going to have to kind of do the same sort of thing, try to out-physical them against the run.”