EL PASO, Texas – As the band played and the fans cheered Washington State’s 20-14 Sun Bowl victory over Miami, senior offensive linemen Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund paused to soak it in.
Even the wet snowflakes.
“This is the perfect way to go out, to get my first bowl victory in my last game,” said Dahl, who appreciated the moment even more because it almost didn’t happen.
Sidelined since last month with a foot injury, Dahl admitted Saturday that had the Sun Bowl been scheduled a week earlier, “I don’t know if I would have been able to play.”
That would have been an injustice for Dahl, the former University High star who’s given the Cougars 34 starts at left tackle and perhaps the start of better things to come.
Even as they helped pass around the Sun Bowl trophy, Dahl and the other seniors were passing the torch, the one they’ve borne through some tough seasons but also two bowl appearances in three years.
The future looks bright, even if Dahl won’t be part of it.
“I think this program is definitely moving in the right direction,” Dahl said. “You can see that we have great players coming in and great coaches already here.”
Returning the compliment, coach Mike Leach cited the senior class as a major reason that the Cougars’ program has made a mental transformation into becoming “a tough team that hangs in there.”
Eklund was tough before he got to Pullman. Spurned by other Division I programs, the Lake Stevens, Washington, native decided to walk on at WSU.
After redshirting in 2011, he started seven games in 2012 before suffering a broken wrist. Eklund was back for good in 2013 and ended his career with 38 straight starts at either left guard or left tackle.
“I can’t even describe this feeling,” Eklund said after the game. “It’s been an honor to play here with my brothers. I’ll never forget it.”
Dahl and Eklund aren’t the only ones who passed the torch on a cold afternoon, far from Pullman. Wide receiver Dom Williams caught two passes for 43 yards to finish with 1,040 yards for the season, and linebacker Jeremiah Allison had six tackles Saturday, second most on the squad. Senior defensive linemen Destiny Vaeao, Ivan McClennan and Darryl Paulo all had big games against Miami.
“It feels great to start to get a name for ourselves,” Paulo said of his defensive mates. “The offense has always had the reputation for carrying the team, but we came through today.”
All will be missed.
“I’m just proud of them for hanging in there,” Leach said of a group he’s coached for all of his four seasons at WSU. “They’re the ones where got here when we weren’t a mentally healthy team, and they’re the ones who persevered and hung onto things, and helped us become a solid, tough locker room.”
How tough? Time will tell. Fourteen years ago, another Cougars team played on this same field, beating Purdue by the same six-point margin. A year later, WSU was in the Rose Bowl.
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