Longhorn players insist (publicly) that its all good, that San Diego is a great venue and that the programs unprecedented third consecutive bowl victory would likely guarantee Texas highest national ranking since the 1981 team finished No. 2.
And sixth-year head coach Mack Brown should be credited for getting Texas back to Top 10 status, but these otherwise lofty finishes will ring somewhat hollow until there is a Big 12 Championship and/or a BCS bowl attached to them (and as long as Oklahoma is piling up more of both). As far as the teams mental makeup, it is Browns bittersweet distinction that no collegiate coach does a better job of rallying his troops following a crushing loss.
The Horns and the Cougars have two previous meetings, with Texas winning both games in Austin. Texas took a 40-14 win in 1954 followed by a 41-8 triumph in 1961. Washington State head coach Bill Doba is in his first season as a head coach, leading the Cougars to just their 10th bowl appearance in program history.
Texas all-time bowl record (20-20-2) trails only Alabama and Tennessee in total appearances. The Horns are also the highest rated team not to get a BCS bid and the second-highest rated squad ever invited to the Holiday Bowl. Yet the less-glamorous Cougars stand to provide a stiffer test than many anticipate
Washington State is a program that remains just under the radar screen despite advancing to the Rose Bowl last season, finishing PAC-10 first runner-up this year to top-ranked USC and dominating some key statistics nationally (particularly on defense and on special teams).
The Cougars were a Top 10 team with a solid chance to punch their tickets to Pasadena before archrival Washington rallied for a fourth-quarter 27-19 win in Pullman. WSU dropped a 43-16 decision at USC. Otherwise, the only other blemish on the WSU slate was an overtime loss at Notre Dame (29-26) on Sept. 6.
The Cougars biggest win was their 55-16 thumping of Oregon, propelling WSU towards a No. 6 ranking following victories over Arizona, Stanford and Oregon State. The team also won convincingly at Colorado (47-26 and against UCLA (31-13).
WASHINGTON STATE OFFENSE
WSUs spread offense usually lines up with three wides and one RB but has also opened games in four- and five-wide sets.
QB Matt Kegel has moved into WSUs single season Top 10 list in several passing categories and was cleared to play on Dec. 9 despite functioning as a one-man MASH unit throughout the season. The second-team All-PAC 10 selection suffered a partial dislocation of his right shoulder against Arizona, a dislocated left shoulder against Stanford and topped it off with a right shoulder AC sprain against UCLA.
Still, the senior threw for 2,744 yards (200-of-362), including 19 TDs and 13 INT in 2003. The Cougars average nearly 277 yard through the air (PAC-10 No. 3, NCAA No. 22).
"Theyve got a very good passing attack and they can run the ball," SLB Reed Boyd said. "Theyve got a good balance for how they do it."
Good balance? Dont buy it. WSU is collecting an anemic 111.5 rushing ypg (NCAA No. 100) and is no threat to pound the ball even against Texas semi-permeable run defense (NCAA No. 59, 152.2 ypg)
Senior RB Jonathan Smith is his teams top rusher with 851 yards on 203 carries (4.2 ypc). He has nine TDs in 12 contests. By comparison, Texas RB Cedric Benson led the nation in scoring with his 21 TDs (20 rushing) in 11 games.
"Theyve got some great athletes at all positions," Boyd said. "They throw across the middle quite a bit. Theres quite a few things that they do really well, so weve got to go out and focus on those and try to stop them and make them do something that theyre not typically used to doing or get away from their bread-and-butter."
The Cougars will play to their strength and try to upend Texas by airing it out and win the field position battle with their very special special teams.
Kegel shares with the wealth as at least seven Cougars caught passes in each of WSUs first nine game this season.
FL Devard Darling, a junior from Houston, leads his team with 47 receptions for 804 yards (17.1 average), including seven TDs. His 11 TD grabs in 2002 set a new school record.
Senior SE Sammy Moore is a triple-threat as a receiver, punt returner and kickoff returner, averaging 122 all-purpose ypg. He was one of the few bright spots in WSUs 34-14 Rose Bowl loss to Oklahoma last Jan. 1, returning a kickoff 89 yards for TD. He also had a 97-yard kickoff return for TD in WSUs 47-26 win at Colorado last September.
Senior OL Josh Parrish is one of five Cougars named first-team All-PAC-10.
"Theyve got real tall offensive lineman," DT Rodrique Wright said. "Theyve got dudes like, 6-7, 6-9. Marcus (Tubbs) size."
"The way they throw the ball, theyre kinda like (Texas) Tech. They're like Tech and A&M put together. Their line reminds me of OU. Theyre real athletic. Theyre not just overpowering, theyre just athletic."
WASHINGTON STATE DEFENSE
In a strength-against-strength matchup, Texas will test its Big 12 leading ground game (241 ypg, No. 5 NCAA) against WSUs stout run defense that limited opponents to 87.5 ypg (PAC-10 No. 2, NCAA No. 6). The unit has held opponents to just seven rushing TDs all season.
The Cougar defense gives up an average of 230.3 yards through the air (PAC-10 No. 3; NCAA No. 77) despite boasting two first-team All-PAC-10 honorees in its secondary. The bend-dont-break squad collected 24 interceptions in 2003, second only to Nebraskas 29.
Senior FS Erik Coleman leads the team with seven INT this season and is second among WSU tacklers with 82. Senior RCB Jason David, a Thorpe Award semi-finalist, is No. 2 on WSUs career interception list with 16. David also holds three WSU career records for picks. Tabbed first-team All-PAC-10 as a senior, David holds the school record for career INT returns yards (318), for single-season INT returns for TD (2) and career INT returns for TD (3).
PAC-10 second-team senior MLB Don Jackson leads the team with 91 tackles, including a career-high 15 in the season-ending loss to Washington. Yet, sophomore SLB Will Derting took first-team PAC-10 honors after registering 82 stops (61 solo), including 11 TFL, 6.5 QB sacks and two forced fumbles.
"They blitz about 40 percent of the time so they blitz more than most people we see," head coach Mack Brown said. "I think were going to see an all-out blitzing scheme like Arkansas because they line up everywhere and come after you.
WSU led the nation this year in forced turnovers with 45 (just ahead of Nebraskas 44). The Cougar defense is the PAC-10s stingiest unit against third down conversions, holding opponents to a 24 percent success rate. WSU ranks No. 19 nationally (PAC-10 No. 2) in total defense, yielding 317.8 ypg. In addition, WSU has led the nation in sacks the past four seasons while Texas is second (a very quiet second) with 160.
WASHINGTON STATE SPECIAL TEAMS
Senior PK Drew Dunning, a first-team All-PAC-10 selection, was the NCAA FG leader (27-of-30) this season. He broke his own single-season scoring record this year with 114 points and is WSUs all-time scoring leader with 341 points. He is a Sporting News first-team All-American and was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist.
Sophomore P Kyle Basler averaged 43.9 and has had 19 punts of 50-plus yards. The Ray Guy Award semifinalist has also placed 25 boots inside the 20-yard line this season.
"Theyve got a great kicking game," Brown said. "Theyve got a lot of speed."
Again, Sammy Moore does most of his damage on special teams. The speedster has 656 kickoff return yards and 337 punt return yards to complement his 467 yards in receptions.
WSU has also blocked four FG attempts and three punts this season.
MONDAY, DEC. 29 SCHEDULE
A Fellowship of Christian Athletes Breakfast is set for 7 a.m. at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. The annual Holiday Bowl Kickoff Luncheon is slated for the San Diego Concourse Golden Hall. The Horns are scheduled for a 2 p.m. walk-through at Qualcomm Stadium.