In a snowstorm at the Sun Bowl, the Cougars’ defense pressed Miami into turnovers on the Canes’ final two possessions to preserve a 20-14 triumph.
Thousands of Sun Bowl spectators had fled the snow, wind and cold in search of more inviting confines when television cameras zeroed in on a well-fed Washington State fan weathering the weather without benefit of a shirt, coat or common sense.
“Please tell me he’s not a GRADUATE of the school,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson joked.
The television audience was soon informed that the bare-chested man in question is, indeed, a WSU graduate. Better yet, he’s employed as an engineer.
As fate would have it, Danielson attended Purdue, one of the nation’s most prestigious engineering schools. Judging from the way Danielson butchered the names of WSU players throughout Saturday afternoon’s contest, one can assume Danielson did not major in engineering – or broadcasting, for that matter.
The Cougars’ actions spoke louder than Danielson’s words. The snow picked up in the second half and slowed both offenses, but the Cougars survived their first scoreless half of the year to down Miami, 20-14, at UTEP’s Sun Bowl Stadium.
“It was a sloppy game, really, on both sides,” Cougars coach Mike Leach said on radio afterwards. “The weather obviously contributed to that.
“I thought our team was real gritty and tough when it came to finding a way to win. They did a good job taking up for one another. The defense started slow. The offense picked up for them. Towards the end, when we weren’t getting a lot done offensively, the defense picked up. The special teams were solid in between.
“It was a great team win against a program that’s got one of the biggest legacies in college football, the Miami Hurricanes. I’m really proud of our guys.”
The Hurricanes are a mere shadow of their national championship teams of old, but the significance of Washington State’s victory would be difficult to overestimate. The Cougars finished 9-4 by winning their first bowl game since 2003. Ten losing seasons followed (plus a 6-6 season in 2006), and WSU’s defense routinely ranked among the nation’s most rank.
The attitude and efficiency of the WSU defense changed this year after fiery Alex Grinch took over as defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Even when the Cougars opened the season with a dismal 24-17 loss to Portland State, Grinch’s impact was immense.
“Coach Grinch said, ‘Keep on fighting,’” senior LB Jeremiah Allison recalled. “’That game is not going to (define the season).
“’When things get hard, instead of shying away from it, lean into it. When you lean into it, you’ll see a different outcome.’”
The following week, WSU won at Rutgers in the final seconds. Dramatic, close victories became somewhat routine for the Cougars, which left Leach with mixed emotions.
“We’re really good at the gritty, tough aspect of things, but then, when we get in the right situation, we need to find a way to put teams away,” Leach said. “We need to develop that this offseason.”
SS Shalom Luani helped make certain the Cougars entered the offseason on a high note when he intercepted a halfback pass by Joe Yearby near WSU’s 10-yard line with three minutes left in the game. CB Marcellus Pippins ended Miami’s previous drive by recovering a fumble inside WSU’s 5-yard line.
“Our defense played outstanding,” WSU QB Luke Falk said.
The WSU defense added three turnovers for a season total of 24, 16 more than a year ago. Points allowed and yards allowed also improved significantly.
“He (Grinch) just brought a mentality into spring ball,” Falk said. “You could see the shift from day one.”
“The coaching helped a lot,” senior LB-DE Kache Palacio agreed. “Getting the new coaches, they (were) great. Also, some of the coaches returning, they did great. And the seniors actually stepping up and saying something … last year, kinda quiet, didn’t really speak up when things (weren’t) going right.
“But (this year) we spoke up during good times and bad times, and we stuck together during good times and bad times. The result changed.”
The Cougars never trailed Miami (8-5) after Jamal Morrow turned a short catch into a 31-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive. The Hurricanes answered immediately, but the Cougars scored on their final three possessions of the second quarter to build a 20-7 lead.
The Hurricanes, the most penalized team in the nation, displayed little discipline and less intelligence at times while drawing nine flags for 105 yards. Several penalties went for 15 yards, including a targeting penalty that resulted in an ejection. A blocking-in-the-back penalty wiped out the apparent tying touchdown with five minutes to go, which brought to mind the words of Miami interim head coach Larry Scott during a halftime interview on TV.
“We’ve got to play smarter,” he said.
Falk struggled at times in the inclement weather, but completed 29 of 53 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns. Morrow ran 10 times for 71 yards and caught five passes for 50 yards and the TD. The crowd numbered far less than the announced attendance of 41,180.
Key wide receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft and standout OT Joe Dahl returned from injuries and played well for WSU. Marks tied Morrow and Cracraft for the team lead with five catches, but wound up two shy of Vince Mayle’s school record of 106 receptions in a season. Marks caught one TD pass, bumping his school record to 15 in one season.
Falk boosted his single-season school record to 38 touchdown passes (despite missing the previous game at Washington with an apparent concussion). His 4,561 passing yards left him 36 short of Connor Halliday’s school record and 101 short of the Pac-12 Conference record held by former Oregon State QB Sean Mannion.
The Cougars topped Miami 382-344 in total yards, including 295-219 via air. Washington State registered four sacks against a Miami team that had yielded 15 all year.
More important, the Cougars improved to 7-5 all-time in bowl games, and 2-0 all-time in Sun Bowls. Take it for what it’s worth, but the previous time the Cougars won the Sun Bowl (2001) came one season before WSU played in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1931. The 2016 Cougars will return many of the mainstays off this year’s squad.
“I’m so proud of this team and the way we compete,” Palacio said.
“Last year,” Allison said, “we shied away from adversity. This year, we embraced it.”