Both the greatest ground gainer and finest kicker in Palouse history suited up for the Cougars in the decade. And the school's reputation as "Quarterback U" started to build in a big way. But better than all of that, a rivalry was reborn. The Empire Strikes Back was more than a hot movie of the era. It was a metaphor for a Cougar renaissance that saw the Crimson Soldiers nab three out of four Apple Cup trophies between 1982 and 1985, forever changing the face of the annual cross-state battle.
In the third of a periodic series recapping every season of Cougar football, here's how it all shaped up on the crimson field during the ten seasons from 1980-89.
CF.C Offensive Player of the Decade – Rueben Mayes
CF.C Defensive Player of the Decade – Keith Millard
CF.C Lineman of the Decade – Mike Utley, Dan Lynch
CF.C Team of the Decade – 1988
CF.C Game of the Decade – WSU 34, UCLA 30; 1988
While the coaching merry-go-round of the late 70s had hampered recruiting, the determined Cougs still hung tough with the likes of Tennessee and Washington in a 4-7, 3-4 season. Conference victims were Arizona (38-7), Oregon State (28-7) and California (31-17). One game, though, served as the perfect metaphor for the state of the program at the time. The Cougars were at home leading Pacific by a point with under two minutes to go. Pacific had no time outs and the Cougars had the ball. The student section started singing, "Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, heyyaaa, goooodbye." And then versatile senior quarterback Samoa Samoa, who would rack up more than 2,000 yards in total offense that season, got pushed out of bounds on a third-down play. That stopped the clock, thus giving Pacific, coached by Bob Toledo, just enough time to get the ball back and have QB Grayson Rogers fire off a few passes. Rogers was on target and the Tigers booted a 47-yard field goal as time ran out to win 24-22. At season's end, Samoa, who accounted for 20 TDs on the year, earned a spot in the Hula Bowl where he was named the game's MVP. The Cougar ground game was led sophomore Tim Harris and the defense was anchored by future pros Brian Flones, a tough-as-nails 210-pound nose guard, and linebacker Scott Pelluer, who played in the East-West Game and went on to a solid career with the New Orleans Saints.
The Cougars' 51-year bowl drought ended following an 8-2-1regular season which earned them a place in the Holiday Bowl against Brigham Young. The Cougars started the season with a 5-0 run, which included a dramatic, last-minute win at Colorado that was set up when Jeff Keller blocked a punt and Paul Sorensen returned it 43 yards for the winning TD. The win, however, wasn't secure until Nate Bradley intercepted a Buffalo pass on the Cougar one-yard-line with 25 seconds left. WSU won, 14-10. With just one conference loss, to USC, and a tie, with UCLA, the Cougars came into the Apple Cup with the Rose Bowl hanging in the balance. It wasn't to be, as the Cougars lost in Seattle 23-10. But the consolation was a Holiday Bowl berth. Stars were plentiful in 1981. They included the QB tandem of Turner and Clete Casper (2,104 combined total yards), RB Tim Harris (923 rushing yards), WR Keller (35 receptions), TE Pat Beach. On defense – a stellar group nicknamed Padilla's Gorillas in honor of defensive coordinator Bob Padilla – featured DTs Matt Elisara, Mike Walker and Ken Collins, all future pros, as well as LB Lee Blakeney (122 tackles) and DB Sorensen. The D recorded three shutouts (Pacific, Oregon State and California), led the nation in pass defense, and pulled in a school record 24 INTs. The offense put up 30-plus points in four games. The Holiday Bowl was a thriller, with Turner leading a spectacular second-half comeback that just fell short, 38-36. Post-season honors went to Beach and Sorensen, both named to All-America teams, and Elisara, who was named all-conference. Accolades also poured in for Coach Jim Walden, who was named Pac-10, UPI West Coast and AFCA/Kodak District IX Coach of the Year.
One game -- the Apple Cup -- turned a disastrous season (3-7-1) into one that is remembered for glory. The Cougs had not beaten the Huskies since 1973, had not hosted the game in Pullman since 1954 and they appeared to have no chance against this vaunted Dawg club, a top 10 team sporting but one loss. Yet, in one of the biggest and most far-reaching upsets in school history, the Cougs rallied twice from 10-point deficits to win 24-20. The consequences were huge -- not because the win saved a terrible season -- but because it knocked the Huskies out of the Rose Bowl and, in the process, restored balance to the state's football landscape. Big plays, which were plentiful that cold November afternoon, included a missed field goal by Husky ace Chuck Nelson (his only miss of the year) and an interception by Cougar linebacker Mark Pleis which extinguished the Huskies' final, last-minute drive. The Cougs scored on TD runs by James Matthews and Tim Harris, a pass from Clete Casper to Mike Peterson and a late field goal by John Traut. Harris, who ended his career with 2,830 rushing yards, a then-school record, was an East-West Shrine Game pick.
After clubbing the Huskies to cap a five-game win steak, UW coach Don James declared, "WSU is the best team in the conference." Cougar coach Jim Walden's only lament was a mid-season loss to UCLA which, had the result been reversed, would have put WSU in the Rose Bowl. Instead, the Cougs finished 7-4 (5-3 conference), knocked the Huskies out of the Rose Bowl for the second year in a row, and, remarkably, didn't receive a bowl invitation. Alas, the glow of the Apple Cup had to carry the crimson faithful into the off-season. So dominant were the Cougars in Seattle that one punch-drunk Husky defender was quoted after the game as saying, "I looked up at the ref and it was like I was in a nightmare. He looked just like Jim Walden." Cougar RB Kerry Porter posed an even worse nightmare for the Huskies, rushing for a season-best 169 yards. For the year, the sophomore from Great Falls, Mont., rushed for more than 100 yards in seven games and ended the season with an even 1,000 yards. Leading the way up front was guard Dan Lynch, who, like Porter, was a first-team all-conference selection. Defensively, the Cougars had two more all-conference performers in tackles Keith Millard and Eric Williams. Strong safety Joe Taylor, meanwhile, turned in a stellar season – including a remarkable effort at Michigan that nearly produced an upset win -- and earned a spot in the Hula Bowl.
The Cougars' 6-5, 4-3 season does not begin to tell the story of 1984. Indeed, back-to-back weeks in October provided two of history's most impressive Cougar moments. On October 20 at Stanford, the Cougs scored one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA history by rallying back -- not once, but twice -- from a 28-point third-quarter deficit -- to win 49-42. The Cardinal were stunned by all-world Cougar RB Rueben Mayes, whose contributions included 216 rushing yards and five touchdowns. His scores included a 53-yard run and a 53-yard pass. The following week at Oregon, in another wild 50-41 Cougar win, Mayes set two NCAA records for yards rushing in one game (357) and yards rushing in two consecutive games (573). His single-game mark remained the national record until 1989. The 1984 season also saw the Crimson and Gray begin a consecutive-game scoring streak that would become the longest in the Pac-10 (200 and counting entering the year 2002). Stars were again plentiful in Pullman, particularly on the offense. Mayes and OG Dan Lynch were named first-team All-Americans, while junior QB Mark Rypien was named first-team all-conference. Mayes, who rushed for a school record 1,632 yards, also was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. On the defensive side, LB Lee Blakeney ended his career as the school's all-time leading tackler (524 stops). Blakeney played in the Hula Bowl and hard-hitting DT Milford Hodge went on to a five-year career in the NFL.
The potent "RPM" offense of QB Mark Rypien and RBs Kerry Porter and Rueben Mayes was not enough to overcome a slide to 4-7, 3-5. Individual highlights included Rypien's 403 passing yards in the opener against Oregon and his then-school record of 4,573 career passing yards. Mayes, for his part, ran to No. 1 on the school's all-time career rushing list ---- a 1,236-yard season brought his career total to 3,519 yards. Porter, meanwhile, was hampered by injuries which limited his playing time. The season's best game was the famed "Ice Bowl" in Seattle where the Cougars defeated the Huskies for the third time in four years. Playing in the Arctic chill of Husky Stadium, the Cougars won 21-20 when the UW couldn't complete a two-point conversion with 2:20 remaining. Mayes, who was named a first-team All-American for the second year in a row, was so impressive in the Apple Cup (167 yards) that the TV color commentator for that game, Jim Mora, drafted Mayes shortly after he became the Saints' head coach. Mayes rewarded the faith by earning NFL Rookie of the Year honors in 1986. Rypien also went on to stardom in the NFL, winning Super Bowl MVP honors with the Washington Redskins in 1992. The season's all-conference performers were Mayes and future NFL mainstays Erik Howard (DT) and versatile flanker/return man Kitrick Taylor.
The final year of the Jim Walden era (3-7-1, 2-6-1) was undistinguished, though it did have its moments. The most memorable was the Cougars' unexpected and relatively easy Homecoming win over undefeated USC in October. On a sunny Palouse afternoon, the Cougars jumped to a 24-0 lead and steam-rolled the Trojans by a final of 34-14. QB Ed Blount threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third, as the Cougars beat the Trojans for the first time since 1957. RB Kerry Porter, healthy for the first time since 1983, returned to his old form with 164 yards against the Trojans. Porter ended his career with 2,618 yards and 19 touchdowns. Defensive leaders were MLB Brian Forde, with 157 tackles, and cornerback Ricky Reynolds, who contributed 77. Porter and Reynolds both were named second-team All-Americans by The Sporting News. At season's end, Walden resigned to become head man at Iowa State. He ended his WSU career with a 44-52-4 record in nine years.
Jim Walden left the cupboard fully stocked for new coach Dennis Erickson, who took the job following stints at Idaho and Wyoming. Erickson's first two games were emotional reunions against former colleagues. First up was Fresno State, coached by friend and mentor Jim Sweeney, the former Cougar coach. Next was Wyoming, the team Erickson had coached the previous year. Both games were shootouts won by the Cougs -- 41-24 and 43-28, respectively. After running up 910 yards in total offense the first two games, the Cougars struggled the rest of way and finished 3-7-1, 1-5-1. A season-ending tie with Cal was notable, not because of anything extraordinary on the field, but because of its location. The "Coca-Cola Bowl" was played in Japan before 54,000 fans at Tokyo's Olympic Memorial Stadium, site of the 1964 Olympic Games. Individual standouts in 1987 included LB Brian Forde, who became the school's second all-time leading tackler, junior DE Ivan Cook and DB James Hasty, who went on to a long NFL career.
The finest Cougar season since the 1930 Rose Bowl year featured a lopsided road win over Tennessee, a televised road win over No. 1 UCLA, an Apple Cup victory over the UW and a wild Aloha Bowl victory over Houston. The result was a 9-3, 5-3 season which saw the Cougars lead the league in total offense (494.5 yards per game) and scoring offense (35.5 points per game). Leading the pack were all-conference RB Steve Broussard, who rushed for 1,280 yards; RB Rich Swinton, who added 1,018 yards; QB Timm Rosenbach, who led the league in passing and total offense; WR Tim Stallworth, who led the league in receiving yards and earned third-team All-America honors; and offensive guard Mike Utley, who was named to six first-team All-America squads. Rosenbach's offensive production broke the Pac-10 record for single-season total offense (3,155 yards). Defensive stars included FS Artie Holmes, who led the team with 104 tackles and played a clutch role in the dramatic win over UCLA, and DE Ivan Cook, the Pac-10's No. 2 sack-master and an honorable mention All-American. Other defensive standouts were CB Shawn Landrum and LBs Maury Metcalf and Bob O'Neal. Landrum's season highlight was a blocked punt in the Apple Cup which set up the winning touchdown in a thrilling 32-31 win in Pullman. With that victory, the Cougars claimed four of the past seven Apple Cups. In the Aloha Bowl, WSU withstood a late Houston charge to win 24-22. Later that spring, coach Dennis Erickson resigned to take the head coaching job at the University of Miami and Rosenbach left school early to turn pro.
Mike Price, a former Cougar player and assistant coach, took over the coaching reigns and quickly guided the team to six wins in his first seven games, including wild shootouts over BYU and Oregon. The lone setback in that stretch was a heart-breaker at home against USC and Todd Marinovich. The wheels came off the band wagon in the home stretch, however, as the Cougs dropped four straight to finish 6-5, 3-5. As with the previous year's bowl team, the Cougs turned in impressive offensive numbers which included RB Steve Broussard's 1,237 rushing yards and his school-record 104 points on 17 TDs. The Cougars' other big offensive weapon was kicker Jason Hanson, a consensus All-American who led the nation in numerous kicking categories including longest field goal of the year (58 yards) and the most field goals of 50 yards or longer (5). Hanson set six school records in 1989 including the most points by a kicker in a game (16) and in a season (99). Quarterbacking duties were shared by junior Brad Gossen, who threw for 1,372 yards and nine TDs in an injury shortened season, and freshman Aaron Garcia, who contributed 1,591 yards and 11 TDs. Broussard, who was named all-conference for the second time, finished his career with 3,054 yards (second to Rueben Mayes on the all-time list). Other honorees were OT John Husby and LB Dan Grayson, both named to the all-conference first team.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: A look back at the decade that gave us Drew Bledsoe and the Palouse Posse, Ryan Leaf and the Fab Five. The 1990s are coming soon, so stay tuned.