EL PASO, Texas – The pent-up postseason frustration of one program will end Saturday. For another, the long slide from its best years will continue.
Miami last won a bowl game in 2006, a 21-20 squeaker over Nevada in the MPC Computers Bowl.
For Washington State, the bowl win drought extends back to a 2003 victory over Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
For both programs, those wins ended heydays that few foresaw coming to a close with such suddenness. WSU’s Holiday Bowl victory was preceded by three consecutive 10-win seasons, an unprecedented level of success for a program that had just two other seasons of double-digit wins in its history.
The last bowl win for Miami came just half a decade after the Hurricanes put forth what many consider the best team in college football history. The 2001 team beat five top-15 opponents by an average of 34.8 points and eventually had 38 players selected in NFL drafts, including 17 first-round selections.
Saturday’s matchup will also feature two teams in transition. WSU (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) is about to complete its first winning season since the aforementioned bowl win. The Cougars feature a surprisingly stout defense that improved by a touchdown and a field goal over the previous year.
But as long as Mike Leach is coach, WSU’s calling card will be its Air Raid offense.
“Big challenge,” said Miami coach Larry Scott when asked about WSU quarterback Luke Falk. “(My players) know it; they’ve been studying film and the tempo, and his accuracy. What they do offensively speaks for itself. We’re going to have to be disciplined up front in our pass rush.”
But Scott is only Miami’s leader until the game ends, at which point the keys to the program will be turned over to former Georgia coach Mark Richt. Scott gave credit to Al Golden, who was fired midway through the season, for putting in place the seeds for the Hurricanes’ 4-1 finish to the regular season.
The Cougars began the year with a home loss to FCS Portland State but became the team that beat Oregon and UCLA on the road, and would have knocked off No. 8 Stanford is a 43-yard field goal had been good.
“I was really proud of our guys because I felt like we got better every week,” Leach said. “We’re a young group so you always grow a lot when you’re a young group.”
Both teams are led by sophomore quarterbacks who can cement already robust legacies by taking their programs to their first bowl wins in years, while also setting themselves up to be some of college football’s most recognized figures over the next two years.
Falk threw for more yards per game than any other FBS quarterback, a feat that was reduced to a statistical footnote by the way Falk led the Cougars to wins on the last drive of a game time and again, including beating No. 22 UCLA on the road after getting knocked out of the game in the first half.
As a true freshman, Brad Kaaya beat out Jake Heaps – a graduate of Skyline High in Sammamish, Washington – becoming the first first-year quarterback to start an opener for the Hurricanes since Jacory Harris in 2008.
Both quarterbacks suffered concussions this season, and both are known for their accuracy and their abilities to limit interceptions. And both have drawn extensive praise from their coaches for their preparation and the amount of time they spend watching film.
“The the mental part, (Kaaya) sees it coming,” said Miami offensive coordinator James Coley. “I tell him all the time, ‘You see that coming don’t you?’ He studies the game and he understands how to study it. Sometimes, you get young guys that watch film, and what are they watching? They might be watching the quarterback from the other team and they should be looking at coverages and blitzes and tendencies on where guys are lined up.”
Saturday’s game is anticipated to be close, with the Cougars favored by 2 1/2 points in Las Vegas. So expect a fight between two programs each trying to end a long period of postseason futility and set themselves up for many bowl wins to come.
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