ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Just more than a year ago, Washington State linebackers coach Ken Wilson was coaching the same position in the New Mexico Bowl for the University of Nevada. The Wolf Pack lost a heartbreaker to Arizona, getting outscored 21-3 in the fourth quarter to lose, 49-48.
“It was tough. That was one of the tougher games,” Wilson said. “We were playing really well and they obviously made the plays in the fourth quarter and still, we should have won that game. But it didn’t work out for us.”
Saturday, Wilson will have a chance for closure when the Cougars (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12) take on Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl at 11 a.m.
The Rams (7-5, 5-3 Mountain West), coached by former Eastern Washington assistant Jim McElwain, provide an intriguing opponent. While the average win total of the seven teams CSU beat is just more than three, the Rams boast a number of superlative players.
Sophomore running back Kapri Bibbs is one of the national leaders in both rushing yards with 1,572, and rushing touchdowns with 28. Quarterback and Vancouver, Wash., product Garrett Grayson has passed for more than 3,000 yards and thrown just 10 interceptions. Linebacker Shaquil Barrett has 12 sacks this season.
“Their biggest strength is that they don’t have any weaknesses,” WSU coach Mike Leach said on Friday.
On the line for the Cougars is the first winning season in 10 years. It has also taken a decade for WSU to get back into a bowl game, and by finishing out strong the Cougars can leave not only a legacy, but set an example and foundation for future teams.
“We’re starting a legacy of going to bowl games and we’re starting a legacy of winning bowl games,” senior Elliott Bosch said. “It’s not just our class that started it, it’s other classes before us and hopefully we leave an impression on the team and I think it will carry through.”
The New Mexico Bowl will be the first bowl game of the season. The Cougars will be carrying the torch not only for WSU, but for the Pac-12.
The conference is considered to be stronger now than in years, and put a record nine teams into bowl games. Of those teams, only Oregon State isn’t favored. A strong showing would speak volumes about the conference’s depth and quality.
“As a team we’re just kind of focused on ourselves,” safety Deone Bucannon said. “We want to go out there and represent the Pac-12, but also our school the best that we possibly can.”
It hasn’t been a typical game week for the Cougars. After flying to Albuquerque on Tuesday afternoon, the team has been treated to receptions, dinners, pep rallies and more, all while practicing on a small football field for local public schools.
Leach says that the team has done a good job of focusing on football during “football time.” But, there hasn’t been as much football time as usual.
“It’s different because you come down early and go to different events and stuff like that,” Bosch said. “So yeah, it’s different. But it’s just something that we have to deal with and it takes a little extra focus.”