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Analysis: Washington State captures program-record 11th win, beating Iowa State 28-26 in Alamo Bowl

Washington State’s  Dezmon Patmon  reacts with  fellow wide receiver Easop Winston  after Patmon scored a touchdown Friday during the first half of the Alamo Bowl. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SAN ANTONIO – It was something they’d become obsessed with this month. All they talked about the last three weeks. Now, the 2018 Washington State Cougars have etched it into stone.

The winningest team in school history.

Behind the right arm of a record-setting quarterback and the clutch play of an underappreciated defense, WSU captured an elusive 11th win Friday night in the Alamo Bowl, defeating Big 12 opponent Iowa State 28-26 in front of 60,675 fans at the Alamodome.

The Cougars, as Gardner Minshew put it a few days earlier, have still never lost a party.

Before they were covered by thousands of balloons and colored confetti flakes, before a fireworks show erupted behind WSU’s victory podium, the coach of the 11-win Cougars – not supposed to win more than four or five games according to most preseason guesses – interrupted postgame proceedings.

In the state where Mike Leach built his legacy and made his name, the WSU coach, drenched in Gatorade, took control of the microphone and spoke about the 2018 Cougars.

“Of all the teams I coached, this one was the most diligent about improving each week,: Leach said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this team. I may be more proud of this team than any team I’ve ever coached and I want to thank every one of these guys.”

WSU was targeting only one record ahead of its fourth consecutive bowl game, but a few others came as a sweet bonus.

The Cougars, of course, set a program wins record by hitting the magic number 11. Four other teams in the school’s 124-year history had hit the 10-win plateau, but none of them got over the hump.

Minshew became the Pac-12’s single-season leader in passing yards and completions, and claimed Alamo Bowl Offensive MVP honors after accounting for three touchdowns. He also set the bowl game’s completion record, hitting on 35 of 49 passes for 299 yards, and tied Luke Falk’s WSU single-season record with his 38th passing TD.

But Minshew, ever the team player, didn’t care much about the various marks he set Friday – and there were many.

“One thing I’ve always been told is leave a place better than you found it,” he said.

The fifth-year graduate transfer was at WSU for all of seven months, but that’s all he needed to become one of the most popular players in school history.

“I feel like myself and these seniors have definitely done everything we could to create these work patterns, these winning mentalities,” Minshew said. “Hopefully these guys can carry it on because this place could be really special. It is really special. To be a part of it’s an honor and I can’t wait to see what they do in the future.”

Rookie running back Max Borghi tied Deon Burnett’s freshman record with his 12th touchdown of the season.

WSU won its second postseason game under Leach and grabbed an essential bowl win for the Pac-12, which had gone 1-10 in its past 11 tries.

This one came with theatrics both early and late.

Before either team could put points on the board, the Cougars and Cyclones had managed to combine for three turnovers.

WSU running back James Williams had the ball knocked out of his arms on the fourth play of the game and ISU cornerback Brian Peavy recovered, giving the Cyclones possession at the 49-yard line.

ISU kept the ball for three more plays before giving it up. Brock Purdy misfired on a pass toward the sideline, and Cougars safety Jalen Thompson intercepted the ball on WSU’s 40-yard line.

After driving 64 yards on eight plays, another ISU drive was capped by a turnover. Another underthrown pass from Purdy fell into the arms of WSU corner Marcus Strong, who caught the ball at the 29-yard line and ran it back 71 yards the other way. The pick-6, however, was negated by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when officials flagged Strong for taunting.

The Cougars were still able to punch in the game’s first touchdown. Blown coverage in the ISU secondary allowed Renard Bell to break free into the end zone and haul in a 22-yard touchdown from Minshew.

ISU took care of its turnover problem, but the Cyclones committed a few more mistakes before the first half ended. A pair of ISU defenders – linebacker Willie Harvey and defensive end Enyi Uwazurike – drew targeting penalties after helmet-to-helmet hits on Minshew. Both were ejected and the Cougars capitalized twice, scoring on Minshew’s 7-yard scramble and then on a high 9-yard pass from the QB to Dezmon Patmon.

The Cyclones booted a 50-yard field goal to close the gap to 21-10 at halftime and continued to chip away in the third quarter. ISU outscored WSU 10-0 in the period, with David Montgomery’s 8-yard touchdown run and Connor Assalley’s 23-yard field goal.

But the Cougars, sturdy in the fourth quarter all season, came up with one more key turnover.

Linebacker Peyton Pelluer, the game’s defensive MVP, poked the ball out of Motgomery’s arms and the Cougars recovered on the ISU 30-yard line. Pelluer finished with a game-high 11 tackles, adding one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.

WSU punched in the decisive touchdown on the next drive, scoring on Borghi’s record-tying 10-yard run.

The Cyclones got into the end zone once more, on a 1-yard keeper from Purdy, but the Cougars smothered the ensuing 2-point conversion when Willie Taylor III pinned Montgomery after a reception.

“We didn’t make all the tackles tonight, but we made them when they truly counted,” Pelluer said. “And that was one of them.”