What to make of Marshall Lobbestael

"There is no question he's got a feel for the game," coach Paul Wulff said after Lobbestael sparkled in the second half of the 48-9 win over Portland State. "He ran the offense to a 'T' and sparked us. ... You can tell he's got a little bit of moxie."

-- Sept. 22, 2008

If there's one thing we WSU fans have become exceedingly good at, it's taking one good performance and running with it.

Gary Rogers, as a sophomore, leads the team on a six-play, 90-yard touchdown drive at Auburn? We call for him to replace Alex Brink for two years. Marshall Lobbestael, as a redshirt freshman, goes 9-for-12 for 149 yards with two touchdowns -- on his first two passes, no less -- in a blowout win over Portland State, and he's the quarterback of the future. True freshman Jeff Tuel leads the team on a trio of long drives against USC -- powered mostly by his legs -- and he's the next great Cougar quarterback.

Of course, Rogers didn't exactly pan out -- turns out throwing a 95-mph fastball only matters if you can hit your target. And Lobbestael is now riding the pine behind Tuel, after failing to come close to matching that initial performance, suffering a devastating knee injury in the process. Tuel? The jury's still out on him.

It's not that I think our behavior is irrational. After two Rose Bowls and three consecutive 10-win seasons early in the decade, we're so starved for what we once had that we'll grab a hold of any shred of hope. It's just to say that perhaps we overestimate potential based off small sample sizes.

Which brings me back to Lobbestael. When I say that he didn't come close to matching that first performance, here's what I mean:

Lobbestael_medium

Clearly, we overreacted to Rogers' potential. (Our first clue probably should have been that he never could get past Brink on the depth chart.) These numbers suggest that perhaps we overreacted to Lobbestael's potential, too.

The big issue is Lobbestael's accuracy. Three times, he's thrown more than 30 passes in a game -- what one would consider a typical workload for a college quarterback. Not once in those games did he exceed 60 percent completions, generally considered the benchmark for good accuracy. In fact, only once has he exceeded 50 percent. That's bad, folks.

There have been a lot of explanations for this, from being new and unfamiliar with the offense last year, to still recovering from his knee injury this year, to playing behind a subpar line both years. And while all are certainly true, one can't ignore the fact that the one thing uniting all of these performances is a complete inability to consistently complete passes. That might have been OK 30 years ago, when quarterbacks existed mostly to chuck the ball downfield. Today's offenses require so much more.

So, here's the question: Is Lobbestael more like the guy who torched PSU, or the guy who has completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the rest of his games?

One thing is a fact -- Lobbestael got more time and protection in that PSU game than he's ever gotten since, leading to the hypothesis that perhaps he's the kind of quarterback who needs time to set his feet to deliver an accurate ball. However, that would seem to be undermined by the number of times since that he's had plenty of time to throw -- including a few times on Saturday -- and missed the receiver badly. It also doesn't help that he generally looks slow and indecisive on his reads.

The thing that keeps us believing in his potential is that, from time to time, Lobbestael shows you what he can do. He'll throw a bullet that hits a guy in stride right after overthrowing a guy by three feet. This suggests some kind of mechanical flaw in his delivery, which gives you hope that maybe he can straighten things out heading forward.

However, there's only one way to truly correct a mechanical flaw or speed up reads: Repetition. Lots and lots of repetition -- in games. One of the topics of conversation lately has been the progress of Idaho, powered in large part by the Vandals' quarterback, Nathan Enderle. Not having watched Idaho closely, I can't speak definitively on Enderle's development. But when you look at his stats here's what you see:

Enderle_medium

Notice the progression in his completion percentage and touchdowns. Repetition clearly has done Enderle good, as he's now blossoming as a junior. The problem, of course, is that this team can't afford to give Lobbestael those kinds of repetitions in games to straighten out his issues. Not with the season on the brink of spiraling out of control again, and certainly not with a talented freshman waiting behind him who already has demonstrated a greater ability to move the offense this year than he has. Also not to be overlooked is the fact that Tuel was recruited by this staff as the quarterback of the future, while Lobbestael belongs to the previous regime; all things being equal they're, going to go with their guy.

Beyond that, you have to assess what kind of a situation will give Lobbestael the best chance to succeed. Assuming he really can get significantly better -- which is at least somewhat questionable -- Lobbestael is the kind of quarterback who needs to play behind a solid line to realize his potential. He needs confidence that he's not about to get hit at every turn, because he's a sitting duck in the pocket. Unfortunately, unless you play at USC, you're rarely going to get that as a college quarterback. And even their quarterbacks aren't immune.

So, to summarize, Lobbestael needs lots of repetitions (which he's unlikely to get for a number of reasons) behind an offensive line that's going to protect him very well (also unlikely) to fulfill potential that he may or may not possess.

See where I'm going here?

Now, things might change if Tuel has some sort of (God forbid) prolonged absence due to injury. But if Tuel's reasonably healthy, and with Connor Halliday coming into the program, one has to seriously wonder if we've maybe seen the best we're ever going to see out of Lobbestael.

Personally, I think we have. It's probably reasonable to expect modest improvement out of Lobbestael. But to expect Enderle-like improvement out of him in this program under these circumstances? I just don't see it. And that's a scary thought when you think of what happened on Saturday.

It's tough enough to win with a great quarterback. It becomes insanely difficult without a serviceable backup, and I don't think the Cougars have one.

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