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Chance to grab program-record 11th win has motivated Washington State ahead of Alamo Bowl

Washington State  head coach Mike Leach laughs as he  answers questions from the media during a  Thursday news conference leading up to the Alamo Bowl  in San Antonio. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SAN ANTONIO – Most of them don’t share the same zeal for history as their head coach, but Washington State football players still know enough about what has and hasn’t been accomplished by their predecessors, and therefore understand what’s on the table for them Friday at the Alamo Bowl.

With the exception of a two-year window from 1943-44, during World War II, the Cougars have fielded a football team every season since 1894. The current group may not have done quite that much homework, but most of the Cougars know they’re part of an exclusive club as just one of five teams that has won 10 games in a single season.

The next target for this WSU team: eleventh heaven.

“It’s history, at the end of the day,” sixth-year senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer said. “This 11th win would mean a lot to this program, this school. No Cougar team has gotten 11 wins. I think that’s crazy. I don’t know how.

“But it would mean the world just to finish out this season, especially with such a prolific season we’ve already had. An 11th win would kind of be a cherry on top.”

The 11-win season that’s eluded the Cougars for the last 124 years could finally be realized Friday in San Antonio, where Washington State (10-2, 7-2) squares off with Iowa State (8-4, 6-3) in the program’s second Alamo Bowl. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. in the Alamodome and the game will air on ESPN.

WSU was still a three-point favorite as of Thursday afternoon.

It’s rare for WSU to post a bigger-picture item such as a school wins record at the top of the bulletin board, but after the Cougars lost to Washington in the Apple Cup, they disposed of one objective – winning the Pac-12 – and moved on to the next.

“If I said right then (after the Apple Cup), I’d be lying,” defensive lineman Will Rodgers II said. “But the next day, honestly. The next day, move-forward mentality. What happened happened. It’s football.

“That was our always our No. 1 goal and we just realized that was still something we could look forward to, even though we couldn’t get it done this year.

“That’s still a huge accomplishment for the season, so I feel like since that was taken away from us, we’ve got to at least try to just end the season on some type of high note.”

Two of the Cougars’ previous 10-win teams had opportunities to reach the 11-win plateau, but both faltered in the Rose Bowl. Ryan Leaf’s Cougs stumbled in 1997, losing 21-16 to Michigan, while a 2002 WSU team led by Jason Gesser fell 34-14 to Oklahoma.

Many of the players who created their legend on a football field in Pullman – Leaf, Gesser, Jack Thompson and Reuben Mayes – never reached the 11-win marker during their time with the Cougars, so no wonder it’s been such a rallying cry for the current group.

“To be considered the greatest team in school history, that’s a great honor,” sophomore wide receiver Jamire Calvin said. “So everybody would be really excited about that. … I would brag about it to everybody, just being considered the best team in school history. That’s something that walks with you the rest of the life.”

“I think that’s been the goal, the overall goal of this bowl,” linebacker Jahad Woods agreed.

WSU’s coaches often urge players to keep a one-track mind while preparing for a game, no matter the stakes attached to it. But they aren’t side-stepping questions about a potential 11th win, and have even used it as a motivational tool in meeting rooms and huddles.

“It’s something we’ve talked about since the last game,” inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson said. “Putting your stamp on history and these guys really are a tight football team, it’s something they’ll be able to remember forever. So they’ve really put a lot into this.”

The Cougars’ senior class will already leave the Palouse with the most wins in school history (36). It’s clinched another program first with four straight bowl appearances. The majority of those 16 seniors signed their letters of intent with WSU long before it became a contender in the Pac-12 North, and the group is largely responsible for turning that into a annual expectation.

One of the most influential members of the class is its shortest-tenured: quarterback Gardner Minshew. A one-year rental who came from East Carolina as a grad transfer, Minshew said he’s eager to send the class out on a positive note.

“That win No. 11 is something that’s huge in all our minds and these seniors, especially, have had such a huge an impact on the program from where it was when they got here to where it is now,” Minshew said. “And for them to end it as the winningest team in school history, that’s something we can take a lot of pride in and something we really want to do with them.”

It’s uncharted territory, and the Cougars don’t need to take WSU Football History 101 to understand that.