Kegel emerging as most valuable player for No. 6 Cougars

Updated: October 16, 2003, 11:17 AM ET
ESPN

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Long the backup, Matt Kegel the starter has Washington State ranked sixth in the nation and Cougars fans asking: "Jason who?"

Kegel, a highly recruited prospect from Havre, Mont., waited four years to start -- the last three as understudy to record-setting quarterback Jason Gesser.

It was frustrating, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Kegel acknowledges, but worth the wait as he has kept the Cougars (5-1, 2-0 Pacific-10 Conference) in the hunt for their second consecutive conference title.

"We're winning a lot of games and having fun, but we still have a lot of games ahead of us," he said after a recent practice. "We've got to come ready to play and come prepared for every game."

His coaches say that's what he does.

Kegel has completed 111 of 200 passes for 1,595 yards and 10 touchdowns, with only four interceptions; a 134.99 efficiency rating. That is just two fewer touchdowns and 305 more yards than Gesser had at the same point last season.

Gesser, who signed as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans, now calls once a week to chat. "He's been a big supporter," Kegel said.

It wasn't always that way.

Kegel thought about leaving when Gesser beat him out for the start in 2000 after a redshirt year.

"I thought about it a lot," he said earlier this year. "I had numerous talks with coach (Mike) Price about it. Something special about this place kept me here."

As a compromise, Price played Kegel for at least a series in the second quarter during his sophomore year, with mixed results.

Prior to this season, Kegel had played in 25 games -- starting two when Gesser was injured -- completing 87 of 174 attempts for 1,035 yards and three touchdowns.

His position coach, former WSU standout and NFL quarterback Timm Rosenbach, said Kegel has quickly overcome his lack of playing experience.

"The big thing with him has been gaining game experience and focus as a starter week in and week out. He's learning to deal with the bumps and bruises," Rosenbach said. "He's accepted that challenge and done a good job so far."

Kegel gives plenty of credit to his offensive line, receivers and even the defense, which has stepped up on several occasions when the offense sputtered.

"I knew what kind of talent I'd be surrounded by. It's why I stuck around," he said.

"I've got a lot of great receivers. Devard Darling is our big play guy. He's as good as there is," Kegel said. "We've been spreading the ball around real well."

Darling is the team's leading receiver, with 24 catches for 443 yards and three touchdowns, averaging nearly 74 yards a game. Sammy Moore has four touchdowns and averages nearly 62 yards per game.

Kegel has thrown to 11 different receivers this season.

Rosenbach said Kegel is "unselfish as a player and as a person. The most important thing to him is to win the football game."

Offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller, a former standout wide receiver for the Cougars, said comparisons with Gesser are unfair.

"Jason had several years to play. Matt's put all his eggs in one basket," Levenseller said. "He doesn't take as many chances as Jason did, but our turnover ratio reflects that. I think it's the lowest giveaway ratio in the league and he's only thrown four interceptions. He's really taken care of the football."

Kegel has picked up the Cougars' offense, Levenseller said.

"The offense has gone as he's gone. The more he's handled the ball, the more we can do," he said. "It shows because he doesn't have as many questions as he once did. He studies a lot of video and understands what he's doing. He makes us better."

Kegel accepts that he'll be forever linked with Gesser and that comparisons will be made.

"They'll probably always be there," he said. "They come with the territory. I'm not worried about it -- as long as we keep winning."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index