Marshall Lobbestael will replace starter Kevin Lopina, and freshman Jeff Tuel will play instead of redshirt.
In the middle of a conference call Tuesday with Washington State football coach Paul Wulff, who was discussing his freshly rejiggered quarterback rotation, a fan Web site reporter asked more than once where “Richard” fit in.
Richard? What did I miss? The Cougars have a Kevin and a Marshall and a Jeff, but Richard was the mystery guest of WSU quarterbacks.
By his answers, Wulff clarified that the interrogator’s “Richard” was actually freshman Jeff Tuel. But that’s about all that’s transparent in the latest twist in WSU football.
Essentially, here’s what’s happened: The Cougars called in fifth-year senior Kevin Lopina, who has led them to each one of their seven scores in 2009, and told him he’s now third string. And have a nice day.
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Of course, they didn’t say that, and Wulff never referred to Lopina being No. 3. But that’s where it’s at. WSU has elevated third-year sophomore Marshall Lobbestael to start Saturday against SMU, and the bigger news is that Tuel will be brought out of a redshirt year to grind against some increasingly salty Pac-10 defenses.
“The team needs that position to play better,” Wulff said. “This really isn’t about Kevin or anybody, to be honest. It’s about trying to develop that position.
“It’s not that Kevin necessarily lost it, but he also hasn’t won it. We want somebody to clarify themselves by their performance, and somebody to be the No. 2.”
After fall camp, Wulff named Lopina his starter and indicated Lobbestael, coming off knee surgery, would play. Lopina showed clear improvement, the offense averaging 45 yards on his 16 series. Lobbestael has had eight series and the offense averaged 12 yards.
Lobbestael hasn’t been in a game with less than a double-digit deficit, and Wulff makes the fair point that it’s hard to judge him in that context.
I half-expected Wulff this week to say that the two-quarterback routine is off, and that Lopina’s the guy, especially when WSU has a host of other vulnerabilities, among them the offensive line. Clearly, the coaching staff believes there’s a lot more offense available than Lopina is giving them — in open receivers unseen or adjustments not made at the line.
Said Wulff, “Let’s just say there are things out there on the field when we play, that from the naked eye, people don’t see.”
The decision on Tuel seems to represent a sea change for Wulff. To date, he has been a long-range thinker, from redshirting JC linemen Zack Williams and Bernard Wolfgramm last year to deciding to redshirt all but two members (Tuel would make three) of the recruiting class last February.
Did somebody above him suggest that he needs to infuse some life into the fan base — WSU drew 22,386 for the Stanford game — by putting Tuel into the fire now? Could the success of freshmen elsewhere, of Tate Forcier at Michigan and Matt Barkley at USC, have somehow tilted WSU to thinking: Why wait?
I asked Wulff if there was any administrative input into the Tuel decision. “Not at all,” he said, chuckling audibly.
A generation ago, just a year after Wulff was a WSU senior, there was a celebrated rift in the program over Mike Price’s handling of quarterbacks Brad Gossen, Aaron Garcia and Drew Bledsoe. Wulff downplays that possibility, saying, “We don’t have locker-room lawyers right now. If someone can step up and help the team, I think everyone is all for it.”
Back then, Price was widely considered a little loopy, ill-suited for the WSU job. Wulff is getting some of that blowback right now. He can only hope his story has a similar ending to Price’s.
Pac-10 notes …
• Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh was still chapped Tuesday about a pivotal clipping call on a 39-yard Toby Gerhart run that might have cost a victory at Wake Forest, saying, “In our opinion, it was a ridiculous call, and one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
• Nobody in the Willamette Valley can remember when, if ever, the two schools have hosted ranked nonleague teams on the same day. Utah, No. 18, visits Oregon, and No. 17 Cincinnati is at Oregon State.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org