If the Washington Huskies are going to close their regular season Saturday with an Apple Cup win that will catapult them on to a bowl game, they'll have to overcome a better quarterback than they've seen for a while.
Washington State sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel stands fifth in the Pacific-10 Conference with an average of 226 passing yards per game. And unlike the fill-in quarterbacks Washington has faced over its past two games, Tuel began the season as the Cougars’ No. 1 guy, and he has started all 11 games. After his last outing – leading a 31-14 win over Oregon State – he was named Pac-10 player of the week.
“He’s a real playmaker,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Tuel is a guy that plays the game fearless. He’s willing to throw the ball in there; and he’s willing to run, really put his body out there. He plays the game fearless; he plays with a real passion. He’s got two wideouts out there on the perimeter that make plays for him in (Marquess) Wilson and (Jared) Karstetter. They present a lot of issues, and he’s the reason why because of his ability to throw and to run.”
Tuel’s passing average puts him well ahead of the quarterbacks Washington has faced over the past two weeks. UCLA’s Richard Brehaut has averaged 133 passing yards per games as a replacement for Kevin Prince, who was lost to knee surgery in late October. And California’s Brock Mansion, who picked up his first college start last month after quarterback Kevin Riley suffered a season-ending knee injury, averages 86 yards per game.
However, all the Washington defense can do is take advantage of the opportunity the schedule has presented, and it has done that. After allowing 55 net passing yards against UCLA and 92 last week at Cal, the Huskies have climbed to second in the Pac-10, allowing 194 passing yards per game.
And even if those numbers are skewed by facing back-to-back backups, cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin believes the UW secondary also is improving.
“I can see them getting better each and every day,” he said. “The main thing is they’re understanding pass concepts, they’re understanding pass routes as a whole. Some say that the offenses we’re going against are maybe not that strong of a passing game. Me, as a cornerbacks coach, I don’t look at it (that way). Everybody’s Randy Moss; everybody’s Brett Farve.”
The numbers say that WSU is well short of that level. The Cougars are last in the Pac-10 with an average of 18.8 points per game.
However, in what is traditionally a quarterback’s league, UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt says the Cougars’ passing attack presents the toughest challenge the Huskies have faced for a while.
“It’s like the old Washington State stuff: the spread passing game,” he said. “The quarterback is a good football player and the wideouts catch the ball real well. I think this week probably the quarterback can throw the ball a little bit better than some of the guys we’ve played in the last two weeks.”
It could be that no one on the UW roster knows Tuel better than safety Nate Fellner, who played with him for three seasons at Clovis West High School in Fresno, Calif.
The two have kept in touch, even into Apple Cup week, and Fellner considers Tuel both a good quarterback and a good friend.
“I told him I was watching him on film and he made some good plays, so I gave him a little kudos,” Fellner said. “We keep in touch. ... He’s really improved a lot. I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-10, so we really have got to be prepared.”
Staff writer Todd Milles contributed to this story.
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports