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Despite a lack of sun, the Cougars’ defense shines in El Paso bowl victory

Washington State celebrates after defeating Miami during the second half of the 2015 Hyundai Sun Bowl on Saturday, Dec 26, 2015, at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State celebrates after defeating Miami during the second half of the 2015 Hyundai Sun Bowl on Saturday, Dec 26, 2015, at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Remember the line when Bruce Willis was crawling through the duct work in “Die Hard?” You know the one, about coming to the coast? It kept running through my mind yesterday during the Sun Bowl, with a few alterations. Read on.

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• “Come to El Paso, we’ll play a bowl game, get some sun.” Except there wasn’t much sun Saturday. And there were precious few laughs for Washington State after halftime. Bottom line, though, is the Cougars toughed out another win – their ninth in this surprising season – and headed back to Pullman – after a snow-caused delay at the airport – with another Sun Bowl for Mike Leach’s office. This wasn’t a vintage WSU victory. It was one earned through physical play up front. By the defense. Yep, this Mike Leach team relied on the defensive front to earn its 20-14 bowl win. Let me put that a slightly different way. The best defense in the Pac-12 yesterday was Washington State’s. Not sure I’ve written than before in the past decade. No, I’m sure. I haven’t. But it is true. The Cougars won the battle of the trenches against Miami on Saturday, and with it, the game. The Hurricanes had an end-around that went for 60 yards midway through the second half. It set up their second – and last – touchdown (the first came on their first possession). Other than that Miami ran for 65 yards. Total. The area between the tackles belonged to WSU all game. Even when the Hurricanes threatened late, marching down the field on short passes from quarterback Brad Kaaya, the middle of the field was the Hurricane’s eye. When they ventured in their, Washington State calmly took the ball away, Marcellus Pippins recovering Mark Walton’s fumble at the 4-yard line. Which may explain something that happened a couple minutes later. The Cougars couldn’t move the ball – they didn’t much of the second half – and punted, with Braxton Berrios returning the ball to the WSU 28. A touchdown and successful extra point would send WSU home with a second consecutive come-from-ahead bowl loss and, at least, dull the season’s momentum. But without an inside running game to rely upon, the Hurricanes turned to trick-eration and it didn’t work. Josephy Yearby ran right, had a receiver behind the secondary and tried to make the halfback pass. It was first try this season. As we said, it didn’t work. In fact, it was spectacular failure, a wounded pheasant that floated just far enough for Shalom Luani to intercept. It was his fourth this season. And, unlike two years ago against Colorado State, the Cougars were able to run out the final 2 minutes and 58 seconds. Jamal Morrow, who said later all he wanted to make sure of was holding on to the ball, broke four tackles en route to 11 yards and a first down. Luke Falk, the MVP of the game despite his most lackluster performance since the Portland State game, pulled the ball from Morrow’s belly and tiptoed for another 11 yards and a game-clinching first down. And the Cougars had wiped the past dozen years from the history books. Sort of. Oh, the wandering in the desert still exists, but the promised land has been reached. Nine wins, including a bowl victory. A future that is brighter than an El Paso spring. To paraphrase the star of another great action flick: “Now is the winter of WSU’s discontent made glorious summer by the sun of El Paso.” Even if there wasn’t one.

• Honestly, Falk’s day was rather pedestrian. He threw for 295 yards and probably left another 150 on the field due to missed reads, poor throws, awful weather and dropped passes. Despite that, he did complete 29 of 53 attempts, a good day for most, just not for him. Still, the stretch he engineered just before halftime, when the Cougars scored 13 points in 6 minutes, 33 seconds, turned out to be enough. But if I had an offensive MVP vote, it would have gone to Morrow, who not only scored the game’s first touchdown on a catch and tip-toe run down the sideline, but also finished with 71 yards on 10 carries. The last 14 were crucial, with 11 of them coming on his bruising first-down run and then the last three in traffic just prior to Falk’s keeper. He, Gerard Wicks (misidentified as Jerome once during the broadcast, part of a handful of misidentified Cougars), Keith Harrington and the redshirting James Williams all could be back next season, meaning WSU has an incredibly deep running back corps. Especially for a pass-first team. And if Gabe Marks decides to return, all but two of the 11 players who caught passes yesterday will be back. The offensive line loses its best, left tackle Joe Dahl, as well as left guard Gunnar Eklund, but seems to have depth. And the defense, despite some big losses, will return more than half the starters plus key backups like Hercules Mata’fa, the Sun Bowl most valuable lineman. Along with the momentum a 9-4 season – and being the main reason behind the Sun Bowl victory – can build.

• If you study this picture closely, you can see Leach smiling. I'm not sure how often I've seen that the past four years. It looks good on him. And all it took was a bowl victory and a Gatorade bath. Who knew?

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• WSU: Jacob Thorpe may be stuck in El Paso – I’m not sure, but last night it sounded like no one was getting out of the city’s airport for a while – but that didn’t preclude him from taking care of linking all our coverage – and the Pac-12’s other Saturday bowl games – in his morning post. He had the game story, the keys to the win and combined with Jim Allen for this notebook. Jim added a sidebar on the seniors. Tyler Tjomsland had a photo report. And, on the blog, Jacob posted videos of the postgame interviews with Leach, Falk, Morrow and senior defensive lineman Darryl Paulo. ... We found other coverage from the game, including a story from Florida and two from the El Paso newspaper. ... Did you know Saturday marked the first time WSU and Washington both won bowl games in the same season? And they did it on the same day in the same state.

• EWU: Southern Utah is looking for a new football coach.

• Preps: Rogers was honored with a sportsmanship award for the Pirates’ attitude on the football field this past season.

• Seahawks: The Rams return to CenturyLink this afternoon with a few tricks under their uniforms, I’m sure. They will give the improving – but banged upoffensive line a test as well. ... If the Hawks win out, they will head to Washington for another first-round playoff battle with the team whose nickname Jacob won’t name. The Voldemorts won the NFC East yesterday. ... Seattle added Kasen Williams to their active roster, bringing their total of former UW receivers on their active roster to three. ... No matter what, Pete Carroll is going to keep his foot on the throttle. It’s the only way he knows.

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• And that’s our report. Have a nice Sunday. Here’s another piece of (unverified) bowl trivia: Yesterday was the first time in WSU football history the Inland Northwest weather was actually better than the weather at the Cougars’ bowl site. Until later ...




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