USATodaySports/Camporeale

Cougs have a wild ride in El Paso

EL PASO -- Watching the Sun Bowl play out featuring Washington State vs. Miami was like a wild ride on a toboggan. Part of the ride is exhilarating. Part of the ride puts knots in your stomach. But when you get to the end you’re glad to have experienced something special.

Washington State (9-4) has been waiting a long time for a bowl-game win. The wait is over. In a complete team effort, the Cougars did what it took to earn the rights to the Sun Bowl Champions trophy besting Miami (8-5) 20-14.

Just like the weather, the game started out bright and cheery. Winning the coin toss, WSU elected to receive the opening kickoff.

After final words of encouragement, Mike Leach sent Luke Falk and the offense onto the excellent turf field. The Cougar offense looked smooth, efficient and unstoppable on their first drive. Falk was a perfect 5-for-5, completing his last toss to Jamal Morrow in open space to put the first points of the game on the scoreboard.

Before Erik Powell could convert the extra point light snow began to fall. As quickly as the weather was changing, the momentum of this game would begin swinging back and forth more than a kid on a playground.

Miami made it known they came to El Paso to play football by taking the ensuing kickoff the length of the field and tie the score.

Just as the two teams exchanged opening drive TD’s, they quickly exchanged turnovers.

Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya looked sharp the entire first quarter only to have disaster strike moments into the second 15-minutes of play. Peyton Pelluer snatched a bobbled pass out of the air to snuff out the Hurricane drive.

WSU failed to immediately take advantage of the momentum shifting INT when Gerard Wicks was caught from behind and had the ball punched loose. ‘Canes ball. But the Cougs would score the next three times the offense came out onto the field.

Cool Hand Luke and company found their rhythm methodically marching down the field to put their second touchdown of the day up on the scoreboard. Gabe Marks made a diving catch to stun both the Miami fans and experts with “inside” information claiming he wouldn’t be ready to play today following an Apple Cup injury.

As wild as this game and season have been for Washington State, there were more surprises awaiting. Perhaps the best run of the day would come with :35 seconds left before halftime when Mike Leach sprinted 30-plus yards down the sideline to emphatically signal for a timeout. Leach found open space and made the call responding to the Cougar D forcing Miami to punt on 4th and 15 from their 20-yard line. Leach’s effort would lead to a second Powell field goal on the final play of the half.

Considering both WSU and Miami have high powered offenses, the third quarter was a different dose of crazy. Neither team could score. Somewhat shocking considering it would be a reasonable expectation adjustments would favor someone. Well, that didn’t happen.

What did happen was a team known for outscoring opponents rather than shutting down offenses shockingly did just that. The lone exception came early in the fourth quarter when Miami RB Braxton Berrios gashed the Cougs for an explosive 60-yard dash out of the wildcat formation, a team-longest for the season. One play later the scoreboard read 20-14 following a 5-yard run by Mark Walton.

Leach’s Air Raid attack was grounded by snow that gained momentum of it’s own. Aside from the one run, the Cougar D answered the call every time in the second half. “The defense played their a… butts off,” said Falk after the game.

For those who recall the fiasco two years ago at the New Mexico Bowl, Leach was roundly criticized for his clock management and play selection near the end of the game with his team ahead. Never one to pay much attention to critics, Leach nevertheless used a combination of running plays to run out the clock this time around and preserve the win.

As if that wasn’t crazy enough of a wild ride, Falk ran the final two victory formation plays out of the shotgun.

Leach would say in postgame comments that finishing with a win means a lot to the Cougar football program. It’s a long time before his team will get to play again. That time will pass much more comfortably coming off a Sun Bowl Championship performance.

The 2015 WSU football season has been a wild ride indeed. If you think that it can’t get crazier than a journey with Disney’s Mr. Toad, simply consider this. Folks everywhere will be scrambling to jump on the Cougar bandwagon and discover what Washington State football is all about.


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