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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Catching up on the Cougar football team

Washington State's Shalom Luani intercepts a trick play pass thrown by Miami running back Joe Yearby with 2:58 remaining in the fourth quarter 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's Shalom Luani intercepts a trick play pass thrown by Miami running back Joe Yearby with 2:58 remaining in the fourth quarter of the 2015 Hyundai Sun Bowl on Saturday, Dec 26, 2015, at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

I suppose one of the benefits of the Sun Bowl pushing its game date back into almost the following year is that we have a slightly shorter break between the last play of the season and the start of spring football.

But I also recognize three months is a long time is this age where news seems to break every hour, particularly in an election year. Furthermore not every SportsLink reader is a basketball fan, and many of you are likely tuning back in for the first time since the Seahawks were bounced from the playoffs.

So, welcome back from your hibernation. Let's spend today reflecting on what happened during WSU's 2015 season before really getting into the spring football stuff tomorrow.

The WSU football season can be broken up into four discrete three-game segments. So can any other regular season in college, but it makes extra sense to do it for WSU, I promise. Those of you with weak constitutions might want to skip the first segment…

The Sky is Falling

The WSU football season began with what was quite probably the worst loss in school history. The Cougars lost to Portland State, a team they had beaten by 38 points the previous season, and whose first-year head coach described the discrepancy in athleticism between the two squads by saying "it looks like coach Leach went to the underworld and recruited a bunch of lycans to run up and down the field."

The game showed how brittle the cautious optimism of the WSU fan base was at that point, and thousands of metaphorical pink slips were handed out during the following week to the head coach, assistants, trainers, Butch T. Cougar, reporters, everybody.

A game-winning drive against Rutgers eased the collective angst, somewhat. But, if the vocal fans at WSU wanted everyone fired, the majority at Rutgers seemed to want everyone indicted, and the close win against a program defined by its turmoil was an insufficient salve.

The Cougars improved to 2-1 by beating Wyoming the following week, but let's just say that the 31-14 win was closer than the final score indicated, and WSU's warts defending skilled running backs were not yet cure.

Up next was a bye week, and then a wood-chipper of a Pac-12 schedule that included two consecutive road starts. But there was light at the end of the tunnel…

A Fresh Start

Coming out of the bye week, the Cougars had a road game against a ranked California team led by one of the country's most talented passers. WSU lost that game, 34-28, but with a number of huge plays going against the Cougars, the team had every reason to think it should have won. The WSU players and coaches seemed pissed off in the week that followed. The team that showed up on game day finally looked like the team they saw in practice, and yet an enormous opportunity had been missed.

They made up for it the next week at Oregon, beating the Ducks in Autzen Stadium in an overtime thriller. Luke Falk's second game-changing touchdown pass in the final seconds of a game came with just one tick left on the clock. Dom Williams, whose grandmother had passed away the week before, made the game-tying grab, and then emerging safety Shalom Luani secured the win with his interception in overtime.

The Cougars blew out a hapless Oregon State squad in their next game, despite a pretty dismal second-half showing from the offense, and entered the second half of the season with an easy path to a bowl game at 4-2.

These Guys Are Pretty Good

The season's third segment is when the Cougars started to flex. Gabe Marks caught four touchdown passes and Luke Falk passed for 514 yards with no interceptions as the Cougars continued to climb the conference standings with a win at Arizona.

That victory over the Wildcats set up WSU's most meaningful home game in years, against No. 8 Stanford with the Pac-12 North lead on the line. The Cougars did not let Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey beat them himself, but a missed field goal and a couple backbreaking runs from quarterback Kevin Hogan proved the difference in the 30-28 loss.

WSU finished up the stretch by beating up a reeling Arizona State team, outscoring the Sun Devils 38-10 after falling behind early.  Just one year after winning only three games, the Cougars were showing that not only could they occasionally play up to the level of good teams, they could beat talented, well-coached teams consistently…

The Agony and The Ecstasy

The season's final segment contained included a road win over a ranked UCLA team, a 2-1 finish to the season (WSU went 2-1 in every segment, how about that?) and another fantastic finish by Falk. It also included not one but two scary injuries to Falk, and a blowout loss in the Apple Cup while an injured Falk watched from the sideline.

Falk first went down in the first half against UCLA with what was widely believed to be a concussion (I have heard that it was not actually a head injury that kept him on the ground). Backup Peyton Bender came in and tossed a critical touchdown pass, and Falk returned for the second half and led yet another game-winning touchdown drive.

But the next week, Falk did sustain a scary head injury, and remember at this point we all thought it was his second in two weeks. Falk left the Colorado game on a cart and although Bender led the Cougars to a win, there was a pall hanging over the program heading into the Apple Cup.

Washington had a fast, mean defense that was able to swarm Bender and the Cougars, who turned the ball over, over and over again and never really had much of a chance after the first couple drives. But WSU was 9-4 and bowl eligible …

The Sun Bowl

The WSU defense that improved greatly under first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch came of age during a snowy Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The WSU offense was stilted during Falk's first action since the first half against the Buffaloes, but WSU's defense continually kept the Hurricanes at bay. Luani once again secured a win for the Cougars with a late interception, Hercules Mata'afa was dominant while commanding double teams throughout the contest and a program that will invariably be known for Leach's offense showed it can with its defense.

Jacob Thorpe
Jacob Thorpe joined The Spokesman-Review in 2013. He currently is a reporter for the Sports Desk covering Washington State University athletics.

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