The Cougars, now 9-1 overall and 6-0 in conference play, need only win one of their two remaining games to become just the fourth group of Crimson Soldiers to earn a Rose Bowl berth. Better still, they may -- with the appropriate "ifs, ands, and buts" caveats -- end up playing in the Fiesta Bowl on January 3 for (gulp) the National Championship.
But forget Pasadena and Tempe, there's evidence enough rooted deep in the Palouse soil that Jason Gesser and Marcus Trufant belong in the same sentence as Cougar greats Mel Hein and Turk Edwards. For not only is their current 19-3 record dating back to the beginning of the 2001 season the third best such mark in the nation, it also ties them with the 1929-30 squads for the most successful period of Cougar football ... ever!
Yet for a while today, in front of a sold-out Martin Stadium crowd and a national ABC TV audience, that mark seemed in critical condition.
In fact, when Oregon defender Kevin Mitchell intercepted an awkward Gesser screen floater in the third quarter for a touchdown and a 21-17 Duck lead, even the staunchest Cougar believer had to wonder -- at least for a moment -- if the magic had worn off; if this was just another very good -- but not great -- WSU team.
It was the second rather bizarre defensive TD for the Ducks, the first occurring in the opening quarter when Oregon defensive back Steven Moore plucked the ball from Gesser's hand and strutted the 12-yards to pay dirt. Both scores seemed more appropriate for a Dave Krieg retrospective then for the Cougar Heisman candidate.
But today, like they have for most of the season, the Cougs spit in adversity's eye, not letting a miscue here or there determine their fate. They've expanded on coach Mike Price's philosophy by not just compartmentalizing their schedule, but also individual games and quarters - - and even drives - - until the sum of these segmented battles adds up on the scoreboard in WSU's favor.
"We did some things today we shouldn't be doing," Price said. "But again we overcame the adversity."
If one drive should ever define Gesser, it was a 96-yard trek he led in the fourth quarter. Not necessarily for it's length, or because it reclaimed the Cougar lead once and for all, or for any one spectacular play, but because of how his day had been going.
Despite relatively decent passing numbers -- 20 of 38 for 277, 4 TD's, 1 pick -- this contest was not Gesser at his finest, and not just because of those two Kriegian moments. Up until this drive, he'd hit on just 2 of 7 second-half passes; his percentage numbers from the first 30 weren't much better. Although it wasn't all his misfires: At least four "should've-beens" were dropped by his receivers and a dandy third quarter TD strike to Jerome Riley was called back on illegal formation penalty (forcing the Cougs to settle on a Drew Dunning field goal, his second of the game).
Down 21-20, the Hurlin' Hawaiian marched WSU those 96 hashes -- adversity in the rear-view mirror -- like the field general we've grown accustomed to, converting on three crucial third down plays, including a third and 17 on the Oregon 26. The drive culminated on a 4-yard toss to Mike Bush, his second short TD grab of the game.
Oregon coach Mike Bellotti adjusted his passing game to avoid the fierce Crimson rush and in hopes that Duck back Onterrio Smith would have the kind of luck on the ground as he did last season in Pullman -- a school record 285 yards for those who've repressed the memory.
It didn't matter.
The Cougar defense seems to grow stronger each week and turned in their best performance of the year today. They gave up just 7-points to the Oregon offense, harassing QB Jason Fife into a sub-fifty percent completion rate, and holding Smith to 64 yards on 25 carries.
"They won the game again for us today," Gesser said.
Indeed they did. Or, at very least, set the table for the victory.
The Cougar defense was so swarming it was a statistician's nightmare crediting tackles. Was that Rien Long and Jeremey Williams? Mawuli Davis and Tai Tupai? Or Erik Coleman and Fred Shavies? For the record, linebacker Will Derting led all WSU defenders with 13 stops, while LB mate Pat Bennett and safety Virgil Williams tallied 7 each.
Oregon punted 10 times and managed just two sustained drives, the second ending on a Jared Siegel field goal attempt that went wide right. The attempt would've been a chip shot if not for defensive back Jeremy Bohannon's sack of Keenan Howry on a third-down option pass play that set the Ducks back 13-yards.
But the "big" defensive play of the day came from -- as it did last weekend against Arizona State -- corner man supreme Trufant.
After the Cougs went up 26-21 following the 96-yard drive, Trufant made a timely interception of a Fife pass on the Cougar 33. Three plays later, Gesser hit Devard Darling on a highlight film tip and catch that covered 46-yards; Darling's second TD catch of the day and the final six scored by either side.
Trufant's pick, his eleventh career air-theft, ties him with Cougar legends Don Paul and Torrey Hunter for sixth on the WSU career interceptions list.
MEET 'JERMAINE BROWN'
With the pre-game buzz centering on Smith, the Pac-10's leading rusher coming into the game, and his huge day in Pullman last year, little or no attention was paid to Cougar back Jermaine Green.
Green had a career day for the Cougs, rushing for 180 yards on 25 runs and being named the player of the game.
Earlier in the day, ESPN's Lee Corso had butchered both Green and Smith's names, dubbing them "Jermaine Brown" and "Orlando Smith" on his preview of the game.
"I hope Lee Corso gets his name right next time," Price quipped.
Today's Cougar victory over Oregon evened the series, which originated in 1901, at 36 wins per school (and 7 ties). And based on the last three match-ups -- an overtime Duck victory in 2000, a game decided on the final play last year, and today's donnybrook -- this would have to currently be considered the most exciting rivalry in the Pac-10.
Only one known injury to report as this goes to press, but it's a bad one. Offensive lineman Sam Lightbody injured his knee and preliminary reports say it could be a serious one.
The Cougs have another bye week before the Washington Huskies -- 41-29 winners today over Oregon State -- visit Martin Stadium for the Apple Cup on November 23. The game will likely be moved to a 12:30 p.m. start time to accommodate ABC TV's live coverage, although nothing has been officially announced by the network or WSU.
WSU: Darling 8-yd pass from Gesser (Dunning kick)
UO: Moore 12-yd fumble return (Siegel kick)
|UO: Smith 25-64, Willis 1-8, Whitehead 4-8, Fife 4-(-7), Howry 1-(-13)|
WSU: Green 25-180, Tippins 10-18, J. Smith 1-2, Gesser 3-0, Riley 1-(-8)
|UO: Fife 16-35-192-1|
WSU: Gesser 20-38-277-1
|UO: Wrighster 4-75, Howry 3-49, Willis 4-35, Whitehead 1-19, Parker 1-6, Floberg 2-5, Day 1-3|
WSU: Darling 7-133, Bush 9-107, Green 2-16, Moore 1-13, J. Smith 1-8
TACKLES (leaders only)
|WSU: Derting 13, Bennett 7, V. Williams 7|
UO: Moretti 9, Binns 6, Lewis 6, Moore 6, Mitchell 6