Washington State coach navigates tricky waters well as quarterback starter Jeff Tuel returns from injury with team and Marshall Lobbestael rolling.

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Every football coach shudders at the idea of player injury for the usual humanitarian and competitive reasons, though not always in that order.

But injury to the starting quarterback adds a third layer of dread.

Because with it comes the runaway conjecture about his eventual return.

The when. The what-if. The how it should be handled to wring out the last drop of advantage. The where does that leave the replacement who has been playing his tail off.

All must be finessed flawlessly — which is to say, the team must win and the guy taking the snaps must be All-World — or else any blame will be assigned to you know who.

This is the act we’ve reached in the current quarterback opera at Washington State now that the incumbent, Jeff Tuel, has been cleared to practice after breaking his collarbone in the season-opening vivisection of Idaho State. In his absence, relief pitcher Marshall Lobbestael has elevated himself to campus legend by steering the Cougars to a 3-1 record, including Saturday’s stirring comeback over Colorado.

To illustrate just how small the win window is for coach Paul Wulff in any matter these days, consider that there was significant loony outrage that he’d played Tuel at all in that first game — the effects of Tuel’s stomach flu that kept him from starting apparently being scientifically applicable to the angle of his hit and the durability of his collarbone.

Something bad happened. Ergo, somebody got it wrong. This makes sports no different from any other aspect of contemporary American life.

Now comes the delicate timing of the re-transition, and though Wulff will undoubtedly be preguessed, postguessed and perpetually guessed, it’s nice to report that he already has it right.

The job is Tuel’s. When he’s ready to do it.

“(But) until there’s a player that’s going to play better than (Lobbestael), he’s going to stay our guy,” Wulff added Tuesday. “When is Jeff going to be able to play better than him? That’s going to take a little bit of time and confidence in his health.”

It seems simple enough, but unanimity is a lost cause in the communion of college football. Surely there is sentiment in Cougworld for Wulff to ride Lobbestael’s hot hand until it’s not so hot, and sentiment to hurry Tuel back pronto. It has probably been advanced that Wulff should not have announced Lobbestael as Saturday’s starter against UCLA to maintain an element of mystery, as if Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel’s head will explode trying to game-plan for both the Lobster and the Tuelman.

If Wulff has an ally in this dust devil of opinion, it’s that while Tuel is practicing — he took snaps in drills and shook off the rust — he has not yet been cleared to play. Nor does he appear to be comfortable or smooth enough to do so in time for Saturday.

“It may be a game-time decision to see where he’s at,” Wulff acknowledged.

Oh, there is a second ally: Lobbestael, who knows the score. His selfless remarks Monday — “Wait until you see this offense with Jeff” — should prompt the Pac-12 to award its own knockoff of the Nobel Peace Prize, presuming the Lobster doesn’t beat out Stanford’s Andrew Luck for league MVP.

Heh, heh, heh.

This whole episode has unfolded in such a mannerly fashion that it’s hard to believe that Wazzu’s history has been pockmarked with artless, high-profile quarterback controversies. We recall especially the 1989 slip when Mike Price half-baked the return of Brad Gossen from injury, and the in-game audition of Gossen, Aaron Garcia and Drew Bledsoe the following year. More recently, there was the regrettably mishandled Alex Brink-Josh Swogger business in 2004-05 in which both players deserved better.

Funny that it’s Paul Wulff who has managed to get it right.

“Whether Jeff is ready to play this week, next week or not until the week after is something we’ll have to gauge as we move forward,” Wulff said. “Marshall is our guy. He’s playing good football, and he’s going to stay being our guy.”

Until Tuel’s the guy.

Dread not.

Tuel’s 2010 stats
PC PA Yards TD INT Rating
219 366 2,780 18 12 133.3
Lobbestael’s 2011 stats
PC PA Yards TD INT Rating
90 142 1,335 13 3 168.3