Sun Bowl Notes Galore

EL PASO --- <b>Mike Price</b> may have let the euphoria of the Cougars' dramatic victory over Purdue get the best of him, or maybe it was the Gatorade bath in the chilly El Paso air during the closing seconds. But as he held up the Sun Bowl trophy with players, fans and the media surrounding him he declared, "This is the greatest Washington State team ever!"

Price may have a point, because this 10-2 Cougar team is only the third squad in school history to finish with ten victories. And having entered the game ranked No. 12 in one major poll and No. 13 in another, they now have a chance to eclipse the No. 9 finish registered by the 1997 team that narrowly lost to Michigan in the 1998 Rose Bowl.

Still, once Price dried off he admitted he may have been the victim of a little hyperbole induced by the timely ball swatting of Raonall Smith. Asked in the post-game press conference if this really was the greatest WSU team ever, Price burst out laughing, shook his head and replied, "I don't know."

Besides Price's own 1997 team, there are three strong candidates for "best ever" status. The 1915 Cougars coached by Lone Star Dietz surrendered just ten points all year and capped a 7-0 campaign with the school's first and last Rose Bowl victory. Babe Hollingbery guided  the 1929 Cougars to a 10-2 mark, mowing down such powers as Mt. St. Charles, Whitman and the Honolulu Townies. And in 1930 Hollingbery and line legends Mel Hein and Turk Edwards led the Cougs to a 9-1 mark, losing only to Alabama in the Rose Bowl.


In retail, they say, it's all about location, location, location. The same goes for football. The biggest difference between WSU's troublesome first half and encouraging second half was field position. In the first half Purdue began posessions at the WSU 40, 45, 46 and 49 yard lines, while the Cougars were consistently mired in their own territory. By contrast, Purdue's  first five possessions of the second half were all at their own 24 or less.


Just how bad was the Cougars' running game against Purdue? So bad that punter Alan Cox was WSU's leading rusher at halftime courtesy of a muffed snap that he turned into a 20-yard gainer for a first down.


With two Jack Elway disciples calling the shots on each sideline, everyone expected see an air assault and they weren't disappointed. It started with the U.S. Army landing several parachute jumpers near midfield right after the national anthem. From there it was in the hands of Kyle Orton and Jason Gesser. The two teams combined for 116 pass attempts -- 74 of them by the true freshman Orton.. Neither quarterback had a fun day, though, as wilting pressure came at them nearly every time they dropped back.

"I've never seen so many passes and I've never seen so many blitzes in all my life," Price said before even sitting down at his post-game press conference. "Purdue had us in trouble most of the first half. It made me think of when I used to have Dave Campo on my staff and he'd see the other team doing something good and say, 'Why can't we do that.' And that was exactly what I was thinking because they were hitting us every time. We didn't think they would blitz that much."

Price said the Cougars spent much of the last month preparing for a two-deep defense, but adjusted the game plan in the second half after Gesser went 6-for-22 for 103 yards and two interceptions in the first half. Gesser still wasn't in top form, but went 9-for-18 for 179 yards and stayed on his feet most of the second half. Gesser said the key for him was going to the shotgun to give him just a little bit more time to read the defense and get his timing back with his receivers instead of being hit every time he finished his third step back.

The WSU defense also adjusted to get more pressure on Purdue quarterback  Orton. The Cougars went to their "Oakie" defense for much of the second half, using the formation with six defensive backs to cover Purdue's spread formations and get to Orton more quickly. Orton was sacked five times, but set the Sun Bowl record for attempts with 74, the most ever against WSU.


Although there is some debate about whether statistics in bowl games count toward records, WSU Sports Information Director Rod Commons said Monday that all bowl game stats count toward school records.

As such, senior receiver Nakoa McElrath enters the record book twice. He caught five passes for 116 yards against Purdue, hiking his season totals to 72 receptions and 1,163 yards --- school rmarks that eclipse his position coach, Mike Levenseller, and Aloha Bowl star Tim Stallworth, respectively.

McElrath, who had suffered his share of criticism in public and private for his comments about Price's play calling during the Apple Cup, only had positive things to say after the victory. "It's really Jason's record," McElrath said. "I couldn't have done it without Jason and my teammates."

Mike Bush had just one catch on the day, but it was a doozy -- a 46-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. For the season, he fell just 41 yards short of giving the Cougars two 1,000 yard receivers in the same season.

Confusing as it sounds, the Pac-10 counts bowl games in its career records, but not for single season records. Any way you slice it, with his two interceptions in the Sun Bowl Lamont Thompson ended his playing days in crimson and gray with just about every interception record one could get their hands on. Thompson cushioned his Pac-10 and school interception record to 24. He also ended with 10 picks on the season to set the WSU individual mark. He entered the game with eight interceptions this year, tying him with Rick Reed (1968) and left him second in the nation with .73 interceptions per game.

All-Pac-10 kicker Drew Dunning booted four field goals and three extra points for 15 total points in the game. With 86 points entering the game, his 101 total is second on the WSU single-season list behind Steve Broussard's 104 points in 1989. Broussard's 104 points came via 17 touchdowns and one two-point conversion, but Dunning's mark set the new standard for WSU kickers surpassing Jason Hanson's 99 in 1989. Dunning's performance was also enough to sway the media in attendance to select him for the John Folmer Most Valuable Special Team's Player trophy. An impressive feat considering his competition was Travis Dorsch, who won the 2001 Ray Guy award for the nation's top punter and also kicked two field goals and three extra points in the game to go with 44-yard punt average.

"I think it's great that a walk-on like Drew Dunning can win that award over an All-American like him," Price said. "He wasn't even made a starter until the fourth game last year."

Safety Billy Newman wrapped up his Cougar career as the sixth most prolific tackler in WSU history. His nine Sun Bowl stops moved his total to 325, just nine shy of breaking into the top-five career list. Linebacker Tom Poe (1970-73) holds that five spot with 334 career tackles.

Gesser's 2001 performance ranks as the fourth best single-season totals in two categories: passing yards and total offense. He finished the season with 3,111 yards total offense and 3,010 in passing yards. The junior quarterback also ranks fifth in both categories on the WSU career list, bumping CouGreat Mark Rypien to the six spot on both.


How important was senior leadership to the Cougar defense against Purdue? Consider this: departing defenders Smith, Thompson, Newman, and James Price were the four leading WSU tacklers in the Sun Bowl, with 11,10, 9, and 8, respectively. In addition, senior Alex Nguae contributed five stops.


Although the pre-game meal could hardly compare to the glorious Martin Stadium buffets, the Sun Bowl received high praise from the Cougars in their first visit to El Paso. "The hospitality here has been awesome," said defensive coordinator Bill Doba. "It's been great fun. I don't know about the alumni, but I know the players and the coaches had a lot of fun."

Still, if most players were asked they would probably prefer a trip to the Rose Bowl. In fact, as usual Gesser was never satisfied. He couldn't help but wonder what if his last-minute pass to Mike Bush was completed against Oregon and what a little better efficiency inside the Huskies red zone might have meant. Still he had to admit, "I know I'm lucky because not a lot of people get to go out there and do what I did, playing in a bowl game."

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