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WSU football finding that bowl games beget bowl games

Washington State’s victory in the 2015 Sun Bowl was instrumental in the success the Cougars had during the 2016 season. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State’s victory in the 2015 Sun Bowl was instrumental in the success the Cougars had during the 2016 season. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – When place in historical perspective, the Washington State football program is on a bowl game binge. The Cougars have been invited to 13 postseason bowl games since the program’s 1894 inception, and three of those have come over the past four seasons.

And each bowl has been most prestigious for the Cougars, who began with the New Mexico Bowl, which was then the last Pac-12-affiliated bowl in the selection order, then went to the Sun Bowl (No. 5), and are now preparing to play in the Holilday Bowl (No. 3).

And while such a stretch of postseason play is rare, the fact the positive seasons are clumped together is not atypical.

“The expectation for our players, it’s neat when a program gets to this point where the players expect it,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “They’re not wide-eyed. The know what to expect, they know what this means for them as individuals and us as a team.”

The Cougars qualified for a bowl in every season from 2001-2003, and also in four years from 1988 through 1997. All told, seven of the 12 bowl games since WSU’s first – the 1915 Rose Bowl – have come four years or less after another bowl game.

In other words, bowl seasons beget bowl seasons, and once a team establishes itself as a bowl caliber program it becomes easier to maintain that standard. While it is true that there are more bowl games now and that it is therefore easier to qualify than in past years, after the Cougars squeaked into the New Mexico Bowl in 2013, their two subsequent bowl games have been earned with robust eight-win records.

“You establish a winning environment,” quarterback Luke Falk explained. “When you go to a bowl game, people recognize that stuff, especially when you get bowl wins. You create a winning atmosphere.”

“It’s just a confidence and attitude thing,” adds center Riley Sorenson.

According to Sorenson, the benefit lies not just in the extra practice reps each team is allotted. Rather, he says, the lack of a big, gaping break in the football schedule gives bowl-bound players much less time away from their coaches.

Teams that qualify for bowl games do not end a dismal season by heading home for an extra month, during which the players are likely to find distractions after a grueling, unsuccessful season.

“The 3-9 year we had like a four week break,” Sorenson explained. “It just kind of throws you off because last year we had a week and a half, and then we’re going again. It’s a break you need, but you don’t want too much of a break because you start losing steps, you start losing strength and you have to be accountable for lifting on your own at home. That’s not necessarily what you want to do when you’re home.”

Youth, lack of depth and a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Connor Halliday kept the Cougars out of the postseason that year. But in 2015 WSU’s players returned to the postseason, and this year the Cougars won seven Pac-12 games for the first time since 2002.

There is so much churn in college football, where players are gone after a max of four seasons on the field, that program stability is always uncertain. If Luke Falk were to leave early for the NFL draft, for example, it could have enormous implications for WSU’s postseason chances in 2017.

But the Cougars are now playing in bowl games with regularity and that, by itself, sets them up well to continue extending their seasons in the foreseeable future.

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