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COMMENTARY: Why WSU should return to Rose Bowl a century (give or take) after its first appearance

WITH THE NEW YEAR upon us, one can’t help but marvel at the icons and institutions celebrating their centennial. Boeing turns 100 in the coming year along with the Indy 500, the PGA, the National Park Service and hey, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs too. On the heels of the 100-year anniversary of the Pac-12, Washington State could mark another anniversary.

On January 1, 1916, the Cougs played in the Rose Bowl for the first time, defeating Brown 14-0. What better way to celebrate that anniversary than for Cougar football to make a return visit to Pasadena on New Year's Day to again play in the granddaddy of all bowl games.

Okay fine, you got me. If the 2016 Cougs played in the 2017 Rose Bowl, it would be 101 years since their first appearance in the Rose Bowl. But I can't help thinking about it.

If you’re the superstitious sort, there are some compelling factoids to make the case for next season becoming a year of destiny for the Cougs – you can start by comparing the last two Cougar Rose Bowl teams to the coming 2016 edition.

Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser were at the top of their games when they went under center in Pasadena back in 1998 and 2003, respectively. Statistically, they were two of the best quarterbacks in the nation.

Leaf was a fourth-year junior, Gesser was a fifth-year senior.

Luke Falk will be a fourth-year junior in 2016. He’ll also be coming off a season where his name shows up at or near the top of every important passing category on the NCAA stat sheet.

But the Air Raid offense isn’t the only storyline for the 2016 Cougs.

It was the youthful WSU defense demanding attention for their efforts time and again this past season. WSU allowed 27.7 ppg this season. The year before, that number was 38.6. The Cougs generated 24 turnovers in 2015. Last year, but eight.

The 1997 WSU stop corps were overshadowed by the offense, but they ranked second in the Pac-10 in both pass efficiency defense and total defense. The 2002 Cougar D also surrendered the limelight to their offensive counterparts, but they ranked second in the conference in rushing defense and third in total defense.

Prior to the 2015 campaign, the Cougs’ special team play was mired in a years-long rut – and it looked for a while like that would continue this past season. But a corner was turned, with the WSU special teams becoming credible again over the latter half of a nine-win season.

But it’s not really about where Cougar football has been. It’s all about where Cougar football is going. And I see that road leading to Pasadena. 

Getting Washington State back to the Rose Bowl was the reason star wideout Gabe Marks pointed to for his return to Pullman in 2016, rather than opting to go pro. And with Falk at the controls on offense, the promising offensive and defensive lines, the best group of receivers in the Pac-12, a solid linebacking corps, emerging secondary and rising special team units, Washington State should be returning to the Rose Bowl a century after its first appearance.

No, if the 2016 Cougs play in the Rose Bowl they will not rush for over 300 yards, as their 1915 counterparts did against Brown. Then again, not much chance Falk will only throw two passes, either.

The 1997 and 2002 WSU teams shared similar rebuilding roads to the current vintage. And for the truly whimsical, the head coach of the 1997 and 2002 squads was Mike PriceMike Leach is the head man these days in Pullman. Do you like Mike?

Washington State ended their 2015 season on a high note with a gritty victory in the Hyundai Sun Bowl (just as the 2001 Cougars did before their Rose Bowl run the following year).

The Cougs went 9-4 this season, a six-win improvement over the previous season. And it feels not like a closing chapter, but instead just the start of things for Washington State.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A graduate of Washington State, CF.C writer Lew Wright has covered Cougar athletics for many years. His articles and essays have been published in a number of national and local print as well as online media including: New York Times, Washington Post, Business Week, LA Business Journal, SI.com, Yahoo!, Examiner.com, Bleacher Report and a number of Southern California newspapers. Editing credits include a sports blog, book of poetry and corporate newsletters.


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