Sure, I'd been dreading the departure of this senior class all season, but from my Holiday Bowl seat just 13 rows off the field I could actually hear Isaac Brown get into the head of Texas offensive tackle Jonathan Scott. It was at that moment I truly realized how much I'd miss this group of players.
Players who started their collegiate careers near the bottom of the college football ladder; Crimson Soldiers who walked off the Qualcomm Stadium field riding an incredible 30-8 record over three seasons.
Or persevering QB Matt Kegel who, had he not been preceded by a Heisman trophy candidate, probably would've closed his career at Ol' Wazzu with a bagful of passing records.
And those who believed in themselves when many others didn't, and wound up playing crucial roles in WSU's success: former walk-ons Scott Lunde, the sure-handed receiver; All-American kicker Drew Dunning; O-line lynchpin Mike Shelford.
Shelford's line mates, Billy Knotts and Josh Parrish, like all hosses, played anonymously until a tell-tale sack or stuffed-run. But without the efforts of these trenchmen, the Cougs would not be sporting that 30-8 record.
Those who seem to have just arrived yet have left an indelible stamp on the program: receiver Sammy Moore, back Jonathan Smith, and middle linebacker Don Jackson. Moore was named the Holiday Bowl's offensive MVP, but a strong case could've been made for Smith and Jackson to receive similar honors.
Or two guys, Jason David and Virgil Williams, who played in the shadows of two of the greatest ever—Lamont Thompson and Marcus Trufant—in the defensive backfield, but left their own large footprints for some future cover men to attempt to fill.
And two of my personal favorites, Spokane natives Jeremey Williams and Erik Coleman, in part because of the way they hit, but mostly because of how well they represented WSU and my hometown.
But like Dorothy said to the Scarecrow, I now say to defensive ends D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown: I think I'll miss you most of all.
The dynamic duo—known as much for their infectious play as they are for the fear they put in opposing QBs' hearts—will be a tough act to follow. And I say this knowing that the Cougs have two damn fine ends in the wings—Mkristo Bruce and Adam Braidwood.
Aside from contributing mightily to an era of some of the greatest defensive play WSU has seen, they've quietly (not a word you often hear associated with Ike) sacked the Cougar record books, as well.
Consider Acholonu's 2003 campaign.
His 21 tackles-for-loss (TFL) this season is just one short of the school record set by DeWayne Patterson in 1993. Closer still, his 16.5 sacks recorded in '03 is just half a bag shy of Patterson's record 17 set a decade ago.
D.D. also holds the eighth spot on the season sack list with Brown, thanks to the 9.5 QB takedowns they each recorded in 2001.
And it's impossible to look at a WSU career sack or TFL stat list without seeing Ike and D.D. prominently displayed.
Acholonu and Brown hold the No. 2 and 3 spots on the career sack list, the No. 1 and 5 slots on the career sack yards, the No. 2 and 6 positions for career TFL, and the No. 2 and 8 spots on career TFL yardage, respectively.
It seems poetic—Divine, even—that the Holiday Bowl would end on an Acholonu sack with Brown close behind.
BOWL TO BOWL
Obviously, the Rose Bowl remains the Mecca of each Pac-10 team, but the Pasadena crowd could learn some things from the Holiday Bowl folks and San Diego about throwing a party.
The pre-game and halftime festivities at the Holiday Bowl made last season's Rose Bowl look like a county fair. The pre-game you'll read a bit about below; the half-time show was a display of fireworks that can only be described as spectacular. Yes, the residual smoke from the event took a while to clear, but it was worth it.
And "The Q" seemed rife with elegance and spaciousness when compared to the underwhelming Rose Bowl facility.
Further, I doubt there is a better host city than San Diego. They definitely appreciate the $25 million or so that the Holiday Bowl generates and everyone—from shuttle drivers to Sea World gift shop clerks—let us know it with wishes of "good luck" or "Go Cougs."
As for local media, The San Diego Union-Tribune had a special Holiday Bowl section on game day, as well as five (5!) pages of coverage the morning after. In addition, the local Fox affiliate had a 30-minute game recap at 10:30 the night of the game.
OL'CRIMSON HOLIDAY SPECIAL
It was a busy Holiday Bowl day for the WSU ESPN Gameday flag affectionately known as "Ol' Crimson."
First off, the Ol' Crimson Booster Club had a table at the pre-game tailgate party in Qualcomm Stadium parking lot with photos of each Gameday appearance and a replica of Ol' Crimson. Hundreds of Cougfans stopped by to visit with Tom Pounds and John Bley and pay tribute to the legend of Ol' Crimson. In addition, Kevin and Erica Stephens, the Cougar couple that withstood some rather hostile Panther fans when they flew OC at Pittsburgh last November, were on hand.
Next—in what may turn out to be OC's finest moment—a Navy Seal parachuted into Qualcomm just moments before kick-off with the beloved flag. Ol' Crimson was returned to Tom in the second quarter and was on display at a prime position on the plaza level façade in the east endzone.
But that wasn't all. If you happened to look up at the Jumbotron during one of the key Cougar defensive stands in the fourth quarter you were lucky enough to see John Bley vigorously waving the OC replica.
One of Ol' Crimsons biggest fans is Linda Finch, a diehard Cougfan and a 35-year veteran of the travel business.
We joined Linda for her "Traveling Cougars" Holiday Bowl package and feel it's safe to say that no one puts together WSU game trips better than Linda.
Keep an eye out for special "Traveling Cougars" packages next season, including a Cougar cruise book ended by WSU's games at Arizona State and UCLA, and both a long and short-stay package for the New Mexico game in September. And, of course, the bowl game the Cougs will certainly participate in.
Playing in the Holiday Bowl was extra-special for Cougar receiver Trandon Harvey. The former San Diego Union-Tribune "Athlete of the Year," caught three passes for 15 yards, including a heads-up grab of a tipped pass in the third quarter that he advanced for a first down and probably saved an interception.
But his biggest challenge was securing enough game tickets for all of his friends and family members in the SD area.
"I got 40, but I needed more," he said afterward. "It was a great feeling playing in my hometown."
Surprisingly, the eight-point margin of victory over Texas on Tuesday was the highest of the six bowl games the Cougs have won since their 14-0 defeat of Brown in the 1916 Rose Bowl. WSU won by just two over Houston in the 1988 Aloha Bowl, by three over Utah in the '92 Copper Bowl, by seven over Baylor in the 1994 Alamo Bowl, and by six over Purdue in the 2001 Sun Bowl.