Banged-up interior line keeps Cougars rolling

Alaska players step up to fill gaps as No. 9 Washington State's injury toll mounts

Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2002

PULLMAN, Wash. - Ask Jason Gesser about his record-setting success this season and he'll quickly point to some very broad shoulders.

Washington State's interior offensive line has been checkered by injuries, yet has kept the wolves - and Bears, Trojans and Cardinal - away from Gesser and his sore rib cage.

Center Tyler Hunt and right guard Derrick Roche have started every game this season, but eight different players have started at right tackle, left tackle and left guard because of injuries.

The line has allowed only 10 sacks, the lowest in the Pacific-10 Conference, giving Gesser ample time to hit the ninth-ranked Cougars' speedy receivers. Gesser has completed 132 of 215 pass attempts for 1,894 yards and 16 touchdowns this year.

The interior linemen, who average nearly 300 pounds apiece, also opened holes for the Cougars' trio of running backs, who have combined for 861 yards and 11 TDs.

Particularly since Gesser suffered a separated rib on his right side Sept. 21 against Montana State, Cougars linemen have frustrated opposing Pac-10 defenses.

"They've stepped up tremendously since I've been injured," Gesser said. "I think it's the best three games I've seen my offensive line play since I've been here."

Coach Mike Price feels the same way.

"I just think it says something about where our program is," Price said Tuesday. "There's been times in the past where we go to our second string offensive tackle, we're in bad shape and can't block anybody. I think it's just better, younger players, better depth."

Roche, a 6-foot-5, 295-pound senior, said there has been no additional pressure since Gesser was injured.

"If he was totally healthy, we would still go out and do our best to protect him," Roche said. "We have enough talent to go around on the offensive line to pick up the slack."

He points to Riley Fitt-Chappell, a 6-7, 300-pound freshman from Chugiak High School, who made his first start at right tackle against Stanford and won the team's offensive lineman of the week award.

Fitt-Chappell, who was recruited as a tight end and quarterback, is one of four Alaskans on Washington State's roster. The others are defensive lineman Tomasi Kongaika (West Anchorage), offensive lineman Phil Locker (Chugiak) and wide receiver Jevon Miller (East Anchorage).

Hunt, the smallest offensive lineman at 6-3, 290 pounds, said the numerous injuries have highlighted the team's depth.

"We're even better when we have different people in the line every week. We're comfortable with these guys," he said. "When you bring on the second team guys, it's just as good. The second team guys wouldn't be here if they weren't good."

Hunt praised the freshmen - Fitt-Chappell, Norvell Holmes and Nick Milhauser - who have held their own while filling in for injured starters this season.

"Every week, there's a new guy ... somebody else that steps up and makes big plays," Gesser said. Roche and Hunt have provided the leadership, he said.

"Those young guys ... have just done a great job for us on the offensive line," Price said.

Shuttling players because of injury would normally mean a setback for an offense, but "look what we've done the last few weeks," Price said.

The Cougars began the season with Josh Parrish at left tackle, but he broke a leg in the Ohio State game. Calvin Armstrong was flipped from right tackle, but was replaced by Fitt-Chappell in the Stanford game after injuring an ankle in a recreational basketball game.

Locker was hurt in the Ohio State game and was replaced at left guard by Holmes and Billy Knott. Sam Lightbody took Armstrong's spot at right tackle, but suffered a pinched nerve and was replaced by Fitt-Chappell.

The situation has put extra pressure on Connelly, who joined Price's staff in February 2001 from San Jose State.

"It's tough. That's why I think Connelly's done a good job," Price said. "You just keep going back to your basic plays all the time. And maybe that's good. Maybe we try to outfox ourselves by putting in new plays all the time. We've been forced to get pretty basic."

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