Indeed, had the Cougars fallen to the feisty Boliermakers in El Paso today, it would have placed an asterisk on the shoulders of this glorious season that might've been too much to bear.
Sure, it may not have been the prettiest afternoon of Cougar football, but when the 68th annual Sun Bowl came to a close Washington State walked off the field 33-27 victors over the Purdue Boilermakers and squarely into the WSU record books.
The New Years Eve victory punctuated a thrilling season for the 2001 Cougars--a team predicted by most preseason prognosticators to finish in the Pac-10 cellar. The win today improved 13th ranked Washington State to 10-2 on the year, joining the 1929 and 1997 squads as just the third group of Crimson Soldiers to achieve the ten-win mark.
The Cougar defense gave up twenty first-half points, but rebounded spectacularly in final 30 minutes, allowing just one Purdue touchdown late in the game and intercepting freshman QB Kyle Orton four times.
The first Wazzu air-theft came early in the first quarter as corner Jason David stretched in front of an Orton pass and returned it 45 yards to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead. It was the eighth Cougar defensive TD this season. David continued his harassment of Orton by adding another pic and several pass defenses.
Safety Lamont Thompson wrote a fitting final chapter to his legendary Cougar career. The All-American made two crucial second half interceptions, padding his Pac-10 career record of air thefts to 24. Thompson also recorded ten tackles and was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
Smith led all Cougar defenders with eleven stops. His senior teammates Billy Newman and James Price finished with nine and eight tackles, respectively.
While the offense sputtered, they did show glimpses of the high-octane unit that we saw earlier this year.
Cougar QB Jason Gesser hit receiver Mike Bush on a 46-yard touchdown strike for the games second score, and connected with Nakoa McElrath--silent (so to speak) for the entire first half--five times for 116 yards in the final two quarters.
McElrath's 72 grabs this season is a WSU record, breaking the mark set by Cougar offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller in 1976. He also finished with 1,163 receiving yards on the season, surpassing the record of 1,151 set by Tim Stallworth in 1988.
Jerome Riley led all Wazzu receivers with 6 catches for 65 yards.
Gesser completed just 15 passes in 40 attempts for 281 yards and was intercepted 3 times. The junior rushed for a touchdown from one-yard out in the third quarter to give the Cougs a 27-20 lead.
All Pac-10 kicker Drew Dunning was perfect the entire afternoon, converting all three of his extra-points and splitting the uprights on four field goals--three of those in the second half.
Things got hairy for the Cougs with just under two minutes remaining and most Boilermaker fans already heading for the exits.
The Gatorade was already in position to be dumped on Cougar coach Mike Price when WSU--holding a seemingly commanding 33-20 lead--watched Purdue receiver and Yakima native Taylor Stubblefied take an Orton pass 51 yards to close the gap to 6 points.
The stubborn Purdue squad recovered the subsequent onside kick and drove to the Cougar twenty-two before Smith batted down Orton's fourth-down pass attempt, thus sealing the WSU victory.
And keeping the luster on this wonderful season.