While it's impossible to scientifically determine the greatest-ever Washington State football team, choosing the best squad of Crimson Soldiers from the modern era is a much less formidable task.
Certainly there's no shortage of post-World War II contenders: Coach Jim "Suds" Sutherland's 1958 squad, the Cardiac Kids of 1965, Jim Sweeney's overachieving '72 bunch, and the Bowl teams (Holiday, Aloha, Copper, Alamo, and Sun).
But the top two contenders for the mantle, by virtue of their 10-win seasons and appearances in the Rose Bowl, cannot be questioned.
So, by the numbers, I offer the 1997 Cougars versus the 2002 version.
When comparing the rosters of this pair of Pasadena Pumas, it's unlikely any Cougfan will argue that the 2002 squad is deeper than the 1997 team, which was, it sometime seemed, only a hamstring pull or a twisted ankle away from trouble.
This comparison simply goes to the starters of these two respective Rose Bowl teams. Because the '02 team played one more regular season game than the '97 team, I will use the '97 team's Rose Bowl to count as its 12th contest in order to make a fair comparison and omit the stats from this season's Oklahoma game. I would have been less inclined to do this had the '02 Cougs not played the eventual No. 1 team in the nation, Ohio State. And Michigan's status as numero uno following the '97 season makes for an even playing field. (Note: two players' stats may be combined if they shared a good number of starts.)
Ryan Leaf vs. Jason Gesser
Both are leaders and have their strengths and weaknesses in the passing game (i.e., Leaf did not have Gesser's mobility and Gesser did not have Leaf's arm), but Leaf's stats are too awesome to be overtaken by Gesser's gutsy performances. Pick: '97
THE RUNNING BACKS:
Michael Black vs. Jermaine Green and John Tippins
Stats say Green/Tipp along with Green's bruising running style. However, if you can remember Black's explosiveness, not just rushing but catching the ball, you have to give the nod to Black, especially because if he hadn't been injured in the Rose Bowl we would have probably won. Pick: '97
THE WIDE RECEIVERS: The Fab-5 vs. The Trio
Okay, okay. I know I didn't hold on to my starters only rule, but the Cougs run so many four and five wide receiver sets that you need to include the top five. '97 had the "Fab 5", but the overall talent lies with the "Terrifying Trio". No one can forget Kevin McKenzie's grab and the bone-jarring block by Shawn McWashington that freed him against USC, but the '02 trio will be playing on Sundays. Pick: '02
THE OFFENSIVE LINES
|Year||O Line||Sacks Allowed||Rushing Offense|
|1997||Rainville, McEndoo, Withrow, Long, McShane||36.5||150.2|
|2002||Roche, Knotts, Hunt, Fitt-Chappell/Parrish, Armstrong||24||139.7|
The '97 "Fat 5" pushed for more rushing yardage, but the '02 bunch held its ground against some incredible pass rushers including the Pac-10 sack leader. Moreover, Derrick Roche's All-American status tilts the scales toward '02. Pick: '02
THE DEFENSIVE LINES
|Year||D Line||Total Sacks||Rushing Defense|
|1997||Boose, Meier, Bender, Doyle, Holmes||24||117.4|
|2002||Brown, Long, Williams, Shavies, Acholonu||52||82.3|
This is a tough one. The numbers say the '02 line with a sack total that makes QBs wince. And the '02 line has the Cougs only Outland Trophy winner in Rien Long. However, how can one overlook the three NFL draft picks from the '97 group: Dorian Boose, Rob Meier, and Mr. Leon Bender. Pick: Push
'97 was back in the day when our 'backers would lead the team in tackles. Thus, the numbers favor the '97 team. However, '02 LBs defend the pass much better. Still, I can't seem to be able to get past Steve Gleason's tinted facemask. I loved that thing. Pick: '97
THE DEFENSIVE BACKS
'97 had a true freshmen safety who would eventually become the Pac-10 all-time interception leader. But the '02 team has two all Pac-10 corners, one of them named "True". Need I say more? Pick: '02
Jeff Banks has the experience and the average, but Kyle Basler's precision punting, especially in the UO game makes this too close to call. Pick: Push
Rian Lindell never missed a kick inside the 40 in '97, which Drew Dunning has struggled with somewhat. However, Dunning's game-winning kick against USC was something Lindell never had to do in '97. Pick: Push
KICKOFFS AND PUNTS
The numbers are split between the two teams so we must look at the individuals. '02 has Trufant's speed, but it also has several kick-off return miscues. '97 has Shawn Tims. That guy was awesome! Pick: '97
I'm still not crazy about our new uniforms, but love the helmets. I miss the all crimson unis. However, the Cougs are 20-5 the last 2 years with the new threads and thus you won't see us changing them anytime soon. Pick: '02
So there you have it. When broken down scientifically, the numbers reveal the '97 and '02 teams are in a dead heat for the best modern-day Coug team. Although if one were to use the Apple Cup results as a tiebreaker...
The author is a 1999 graduate of Washington State and a 1995 product of Pullman High. He is the grandson of the legendary Richard "Dick" Fry, author of the "Crimson and the Gray."