As Calendar Turns, An Undeniable Jinx Rears Its Ugly Head

Memo to Mike Price: Next time, tell your guys the game is scheduled for Oct. 32.

Full-scale denial may be the only remaining alternative.

The calendar struck November on Saturday, the operative syllable for the Washington State Cougars being “no.”

No joy. No magic.

A no-win situation.

Yes, the jinx that is this merciless month was on the ropes for a few brief moments Saturday night, but they served only to make the verdict - Arizona State 44, WSU 31 - that much more cruel.

The undefeated season? Snuffed.

The climb up college football’s hit parade? Going down.

The blustery redefinition of “Couging?” On hold. The fate of their Rose Bowl grail? Now in somebody else’s greedy hands.

All because for the first time this splendid season, the Cougs couldn’t conjure up another first.

Check that. They had a crowd of 73,644 - the fifth-largest in the history of Sun Devil Stadium - chanting “Over-rated!” in the closing seconds.

Surely that has to be a first for the Cougs.

And at a quarter to midnight local time, the bright yellow goalposts at the south end of Frank Kush Field - the only joint in America named after a coach who was fired - came tumbling down. This is perhaps the ultimate compliment, unless the vandals were merely hoping to hock the video camera mounted on the crossbar.

But in the end, it was the same old, same old:

In November road games, Price’s Cougars are now 0-13. In November period, Price’s Cougs are 4-20. This team is only 0-1, but one in November carries more weight than any in September.

And these Cougs, we were told, were going to rewrite this damnable history - just as they’d amended the text in previous chapters regarding UCLA and USC, big plays in the clutch, overtime, etc.

Falling behind 24-0, alas, is not the express train to greatness.

What the Cougars encountered in Tempe was the most underrated team in the Pac-10 - surely the quickest Wazzu has seen this year, and maybe the smartest, too. And they had the misfortune of catching ASU’s redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Kealy - who’s been playing to a good-game/bad-game/good/bad pattern all year - at the top of his biorhythms.

That didn’t make him the best Ryan on the field, necessarily, the way Arizona’s Ortege Jenkins was supposedly the best No. 16 last week.

It did make him the most efficient.

As for the other Ryan, well, Cougars quarterback Ryan Leaf’s reputation will not suffer from throwing for 447 yards the second-highest total in WSU history, with a strained elbow swaddled in tape to boot.

But those were numbers of necessity. Aside from one 59-yard run by DeJuan Gilmore, the Cougars had no running game. In the second half, Michael Black never got out of the red.

And in the end, the plays that laid to waste one of the more dramatic comebacks in Cougars history - second only to the Stanford game of 1984 - were those from Leaf’s hand.

A foolish interception he should have eaten that killed a third-quarter drive. The two unfortunate fumbles when he was left unprotected that ASU turned into the clinching touchdowns.

Price took the fall for not changing the call on the play of the game - the Cougs fourth-and-3 at the ASU 23. The empty backfield formation had caused the Sun Devils a little misery as the evening unfolded, but in this case the Cougs showed it once too often. Safety Mitchell Freedman couldn’t have timed his blitz better - and knew that he had to swallow Leaf whole, lest he spin away and throw a dart as he did so often earlier.

For all that, the Cougars probably had no business being close after those first two quarters, which for a Wazzu fan passed just about as pleasantly as a full cavity search.

They were only that close because of Leaf.

Hey, you could have seen this coming - at least if you drove to the stadium on the freeway where signs advised motorists “Price Road Closed.”

But the stain of this rout need not be permanent.

Southwestern Louisiana awaits, the best restorative this side of a week of bed rest. Reeling Stanford follows. The Apple Cup is still beyond huge, though we’ll regret the minor demerit that both teams won’t arrive with spotless conference records.

Leaf is still in the Heisman hunt. He got Lou Holtz’s vote on TV Saturday.

But those of you who had narrowed the Rose Bowl race to the two Washington schools and maybe UCLA, think again. The Sun Devils have lost just to UW and close with Cal, Oregon and Arizona - none of them Southwestern Louisiana, but none of them very good, either.

And ASU coach Bruce Snyder is now 10-6 in November.

Make that Son of October. If Price can redefine Couging, surely he can rename a month.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: The race to the Rose Bowl

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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