It was a bit of poetic justice the other day when Marshall Lobbestael, the Washington State quarterback, was named to start Saturday night’s game at UCLA, even if Jeff Tuel is healthy and ready to go.
You could say this is where Lobbestael came in. Two years ago in Pullman, late in the season, he made his sixth and last WSU start before he was pulled from mothballs five weeks ago.
And in retrospect, if the Lobster — as he is known to a lot of WSU fans — wasn’t blessed with resilience and a good head on his shoulders, that could have been the defining memory of his time as a quarterback at WSU.
That 2009 start came against UCLA. It might have been the worst day I’ve ever seen by a college quarterback. In WSU’s first nine plays, Lobbestael threw five passes, completed one and had three intercepted.
All this, with 9:29 left in the first quarter. You could look it up.
UCLA won, 43-7.
“I lived with B.J. (Guerra) and (Andrew) Roxas at the time,” Lobbestael told me recently. “They supported me really well. My parents were home, too. I came home and tried to get away from it all.”
It’s easy to be sympathetic to Lobbestael, who is in his fifth season of fighting the good fight for the Cougars. But that’s not the best reason he’s starting against the Bruins.
Some would argue for Tuel. But this isn’t about the loopy debate over whether you can lose your job due to an injury. Of course you can. This is an issue of who gives you the better opportunity to win.
In most cases, that’s Tuel. But I’d say the chance of him making a seamless transition after being out for five weeks is unlikely. He almost has to be rusty, even if he is ready. Meanwhile, you have a Lobbestael in rhythm, going against a UCLA defense that has only three sacks in five games.
So giving him the start makes sense. Maybe you make it a short leash, like a quarter. If he’s not getting it done, you turn to Tuel, assuming he’s available. If Lobbestael plays well, then you have a chance to give Tuel an extra week’s work before WSU plays Stanford Oct. 15.
Only by virtue of the fact Lobbestael has soldiered through some very lean times do the Cougars have the choice. I always thought of him as a victim as a redshirt freshman in 2008, playing because two quarterbacks ahead of him got hurt. Behind an awful offensive line, he was hit at Oregon State and suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Then there came an embarrassing minor-in-possession incident the following winter, and soon, the arrival of the talented Tuel. Lobbestael was all but forgotten – and certainly not viewed by fans as somebody the Cougars could win with.
Until, that is, he started for an ill Tuel in the Idaho State opener, and then for a month when Tuel suffered his broken clavicle.
The last-minute comeback at Colorado never happens unless Lobbestael stays the course, is a good teammate and doesn’t become a disruptive force. In his last three starts of 2011, he has thrown for 1,105 yards.
“He’s just become such a quality individual,” says WSU coach Paul Wulff, tracing Lobbestael’s growth. “I just see a more stable individual, a more respected player, somebody who’s been through a lot.
“He’s been committed, hell-bent on bringing Cougar football back.”
Not a bad guy in the locker room, either. When reporters quizzed him on the quarterback picture with Tuel about to return, Lobbestael said, “Wait’ll you see this offense with Jeff . . . I’m excited to see what he can do this year.”
It was ironic to hear UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel say of Lobbestael on Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches conference call, “I think he’s a fantastic player.”
He wasn’t so fantastic that cold day in Pullman in November of 2009, with Neuheisel on the other sideline.
But now that doesn’t have to be such a prominent memory of his college-quarterbacking days. No matter what happens now, the Lobster will always have Boulder.