SPOKANE, Wash. — Ryan Leaf didn't do it. Neither did Jason Gesser, Matt Kegel or Alex Brink.
On Saturday, Jeff Tuel will become the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Washington State since Drew Bledsoe in 1990. It's an effort to improve a rare two-year run of woeful passing.
Tuel earned the start Saturday at No. 16 Oregon after playing well in last weekend's loss at Southern California.
"He got his first opportunity to play last week and did some good things and gave us some ability to move the ball," coach Paul Wulff said Tuesday. "He's got a lot to learn, but that's where the program is now, bringing in a lot of young kids."
Tuel, from Fresno, Calif., entered the USC game in the second quarter in relief of Marshall Lobbestael and completed 14 of 22 passes for 130 yards and one interception. He also ran nine times for 34 yards. He was sacked four times.
Freshman quarterbacks are a trend in the Pac-10 this season. True freshman Matt Barkley is starting at Southern Cal, while redshirt freshman Kevin Prince leads UCLA and redshirt freshman Andrew Luck starts at Stanford.
Tuel was expected to redshirt this season, but poor quarterback play prompted Wulff to make the change.
Previous starters Kevin Lopina and Lobbestael left the Cougars (1-3, 0-2 Pac-10) last or near the bottom in most offensive categories this season and last. The team is averaging just 17 points per game, ranked 109th among FBS teams. The passing game has produced just three touchdowns with six interceptions in four games.
Tuel, 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds, started only his senior year in high school, throwing for 1,714 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Bledsoe, one of the greatest players in team history and a longtime NFL star, started the seventh game of his freshman year, against Oregon State. He remains near the top of most WSU career passing records.
Washington State has a long tradition of top quarterbacks and could count on a 3,000-yard or so passer most years the past two decades. Mark Rypien and Timm Rosenbach preceded Bledsoe, also going to the NFL. After him came Leaf, Gesser, Kegel and Brink.
But the wheels came off last season. Career backup Gary Rogers inherited the job from Brink, but was knocked out for the season with an injury after four games. Lopina and Lobbestael alternated the rest of the games, between injuries to both. The result was a passing attack that produced just 1,898 yards, six touchdowns and 21 interceptions. By contrast, Gesser threw for six touchdowns in one game against Arizona in 2000.
Lopina and Lobbestael competed for the starting job this year, but neither could stake a strong claim. Wulff settled on the senior Lopina, but the offense sputtered in two opening losses.
Wulff then announced that Lobbestael would start against SMU, and the redshirt would be pulled off Tuel. Playing the entire game, Lobbestael led the offense to just 16 points against SMU, but a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns produced WSU's only victory so far.
Lobbestael, a sophomore, started against Southern Cal but was yanked in the second quarter after completing 2 of 9 passes for 14 yards. Tuel finished the game, leading the Cougars on some impressive drives. He displayed an impressive arm and more mobility than the other quarterbacks.
"It was an amazing experience, and it meant the world to me to have my teammates getting my back like they did," Tuel said after the game. "I'll learn from everything tonight."
Wulff said the team has not given up on Lobbestael.
"We aren't here to anoint anybody," Wulff said. "We've got two young players we can work with."