LEAF: The first of many

LAST SATURDAY I was in Idaho driving back to Montana and received a text message from my Dad that only said, "14-0 Cougs." I immediately wanted to know two things -- what stage of the game was it, and how quickly could I get to Martin Stadium.

I was too far away to make it to Pullman in time, (particularly since the game was being played in Corvallis.) My dad texted me back, "Halftime, but Tuel's out and you should be able to get it on XM Radio."

I tuned in to the XM channel and was pleasantly surprised to hear Jeff Tuel was okay and would return for the second half. As I rose and fell over the mountain passes of Idaho and Montana, I listened to that entire second half of crimson bliss.

Winning a conference game for the first time since the 2008 Apple Cup -- and doing it on the road, and against the coach and opponent who most deserve a good butt-kicking, (well, save for those Purple Puppies over in Seattle), had me grinning long after the final whistle had sounded.

IT WAS BOUND to happen -- we were so close in games against SMU, UCLA, Arizona and Cal.

But winning is a process, and learning how to close out wins is part of that. When you haven't experienced that winning feeling, when you don't know how to win, it's hard to get over that hurdle. But now that the Cougs have done it, look out. It's the first of many wins to come.

LISTENING TO THE dejected Oregon State commentators on XM pleased me to no end, but what even pleased me more was when I was able to watch the game on my DVR. And I didn't have long to wait.

I may get some backlash for this…but the opening play from scrimmage, where C.J. Mizell rode Jacquizz Rodgers out of bounds and got the 15-yard penalty, that impressed the hell out of me.

So did the sheer aggressiveness by the Cougars that followed Mizell's play -- on both offense and defense. And I believe it was all interrelated.

The way these Cougars came out and battled, you would have never known that you were watching a team that hadn't won a Pac-10 game in their last 16 tries. That is a great credit to the coaching staff, for getting this team fully up and prepared to try and try and try again until they could get that first one under their belts.

TEAMS CAN GO in different directions when times get tough. In 1996 we were 5-2, one win from being bowl eligible with the Trojans coming to Martin Stadium. We battled and battled, but after getting into scoring position late in the fourth quarter I tried to do too much, and fumbled away our best chance. I walked away scarred from that, though I wouldn't admit that to myself at the time.

I let my poor performance stick with me for too long, for two and a half games. I was in a mental funk, and it led to big time losses on the road to UCLA and Stanford. I never admitted this to anyone, but our inability to win one of those final four games of ‘96 was fully on me. But Coach Price knew me, and with all the time we spent watching film and discussing game plans, he knew his quarterback was struggling on the inside.

The week before the Apple Cup, he put together a highlight film just for me, chock full of plays from the previous three weeks. The whole thing was set to, I'm a little embarrassed to say, Mariah Carey's, ‘Hero.' Though cheesy, the point was made. There were some great plays in there, ones I had forgotten because all I could see were the losses and the mistakes I had made.

I may have always acted ultra-confident on the outside, even during that stretch, but oh how I needed the boost of confidence Coach Price gave me with that. It still took me half of the Apple Cup to fully understand the leader and hero that my teammates needed. And I had a choice to make -- either I had to be that man or I needed to get the hell off the field. I chose the former.

WITH THE OREGON STATE win still fresh in my mind, I wonder if a similar scenario played out in Pullman again this month like it did for me back in ‘96. If there was someone who thought Jeff Tuel had that hero-type performance in him, just waiting to come out…

If there was someone who gave him that confidence booster after those two tough losses to Arizona and Cal at home. Jeff didn't play at his best in those games, and he'd be the first to admit that. But his gutsy performance in Corvallis, along with the rest of the guys wearing crimson and gray, that is what now defines this team.

That game, that effort, that toughness, it definitely showed what kind of young men we have in Pullman. And it also showed something else, that there are great men leading them.

NOTE: With two more weeks still to come before the first Apple Cup held in December, I extend an invitation to any and all Cougfan.com readers regarding my next column. What do you want to know, what do you want to hear about? This year's team? Offense? Defense? Something about my playing days? A little bit about how we game planned on offense to beat Washington in the ‘97 Apple Cup? Something about college football, in general? Post it on the CF.C message boards and let me know! Lastly, and as always, GO COUGS!!

Ryan Leaf is a Washington State graduate who quarterbacked the 1997 Cougars to the Pac-10 title, a top 10 national finish and a berth in the 1998 Rose Bowl. He shattered records, earned first-team All-America honors, and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He later spent four seasons in the NFL, and three seasons as the quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M. Today, Ryan still keeps many balls in the air. He works in sales and marketing for West Coast Resorts, has become a passionate advocate for those trying to overcome addiction to prescription painkillers, is pursuing varied business interests, and writing a periodic column for CF.C. He can be contacted at rdl16@aol.com.

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