If a decade is measured by wins, Mike Leach just authored the most successful one in Washington State football history.
Never before had WSU won more than 60 games in a 10-year span. Leach, the eighth-year coach who just took the school to its fifth consecutive bowl game, has averaged 6.8 wins per season since he took over in 2012 and won the Cougars’ 61st game of the decade more than a month ago against Oregon State at Martin Stadium.
If a decade is measured by hallmark moments, individual records and off-the-field feats, Leach’s Cougars have no shortage of those either.
As the decade winds down, we count the “Top 10 moments,” from No. 1 to No. 10.
New era begins under Mike Leach: After four uninspiring seasons under Paul Wulff in which the Cougars went 9-40, athletic director Bill Moos made a change in November 2011. Wulff was gone on the 29th, Leach was in on the 30th.
Moos wooed Leach during a trip to Key West, Florida, where he’d been stationed during a two-year coaching hiatus.
The Cougars brought “The Pirate” to Pullman on Dec. 6 for an introductory press conference.
“People ask me, ‘Why Washington State?’ ” Leach said. “Once I get past thinking in the back of my mind, ‘Well, that’s a stupid question …’ ”
The Leach era was underway.
Was it the most prosperous coaching hire in WSU football history? That probably can’t and won’t be determined until Leach’s tenure ends. But it’s hard to argue with the results thus far.
In eight seasons, Leach, the school’s 32nd coach, has vaulted to third all-time in total wins (55) and holds a win-loss record of 43-22 since 2015. He’s taken the Cougars to five consecutive bowl games – the previous program record being three – and was responsible for the winningest season in program history, when WSU secured 11 victories in 2018. Furthermore, his quarterbacks hold Pac-12 records for most passing yards in a career (Luke Falk), single season (Anthony Gordon) and single game (Connor Halliday).
Historic season capped in the Alamo: Given the expectations set for the Cougars before the year – Pac-12 media members selected them to finish fifth in the North Division – a case could be made for 2018 being the most successful season in program history.
If not that, at least the most surprising.
With the exception of an early hiccup against USC and a late one against Washington in the Apple Cup, the Cougars beat everyone on the regular-season schedule, and had photo finishes against Utah, Stanford and Cal.
Gardner Minshew, Andre Dillard and James Williams anchored the most productive offense in the Pac-12. Peyton Pelluer, in his sixth season, became the most capped player in school history and carried a ferocious WSU defense.
After falling short against the Huskies in a winner-claims-the-North Apple Cup, the Cougars earned a spot in the Alamo Bowl against Iowa State. One day before the game, at an Alamo Bowl rally held from the San Antonio Riverwalk, Minshew exclaimed, “We may have lost two games, but we’ve never lost a party!”
Minshew and Pelluer led the Cougars to a 28-26 win over the Cyclones, securing a program-record 11th win. The beloved QB threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another, and the revered linebacker collected 11 tackles in his 54th and final game.
College GameDay arrival creates euphoria: Ever since 2003, when Tom Pounds brought his Ol’ Crimson flag to ESPN College GameDay, the Cougars have been part of the highly popular pregame show.
It took 15 years for GameDay to return the favor, but Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Rece Davis finally trekked to the Palouse for 25th-ranked WSU’s game against No. 12 Oregon. Anticipating tens of thousands of fans for the Saturday morning show, Pullman issued a state of emergency and used the city’s transit buses to transport crowds throughout the day.
Masses of people converged behind the GameDay set, located just across the street from Martin Stadium, and many woke up as early as 2 a.m. to secure a premium spot. With hundreds of WSU flags strewn throughout the audience, cameras focused on Pounds – standing on top of a podium – for the opening shot, as Davis made his introduction: “A symbol, not just of a campaign, but a crusade. And here is the godfather of the crusade, Tom Pounds. Fifteen years, they’ve waited for this moment on this Palouse.”
With celebrity picker Drew Bledsoe seated behind Corso, the ESPN analyst placed a Cougar head over his skull, predicting a WSU upset over Oregon. Minshew and the Cougars came through later in the day, surging to a 27-0 lead early and holding off the Justin Herbert-led Ducks late to cap off a chaotic day with a 34-20 win – WSU’s fourth straight over Oregon.
Constructing a more promising future: Consider it one of the top things to happen for the WSU program that doesn’t involve a football being thrown. With many of his Pac-12 peers building large, lavish football-specific facilities, former athletic director Moos knew the Cougars would stay at the bottom of the recruiting totem pole if they weren’t putting a good product on the field, or giving recruits something appealing to look at it in the meantime.
Moos made his pitch to then-president Elson Floyd and Floyd, understanding the changing landscape in college football, approved the construction of a $61 million operations building that would sit between the west end zone at Martin Stadium and Rogers Field.
With coaches’ offices overlooking the playing field, a new locker room, a barbershop, a cafeteria and much more, the five-story project helped put the Cougars on the facilities map while Leach took the team to unforeseen levels on the field.
“Now we take a backseat to nobody,” Moos said in 2014 after the building’s completion.
Minshew mounts his Heisman case: What began with a simple sales pitch – “How would you like to come lead the country in passing yards?” – evolved into one of the most successful, productive and exciting seasons by a quarterback in WSU and Pac-12 history.
Minshew, a little-known quarterback from East Carolina who’d planned to spend his senior season as a backup at Alabama, left home in Brandon, Mississippi, for an opportunity to extend his playing career in the Pac-12 and run Leach’s Air Raid. Minshew was an avid Leach follower well before his fateful phone call from WSU’s coach.
After just four weeks, Minshew was given the keys to the offense. After four months, he might as well have left with keys to the city.
In just one season, the mustachioed grad transfer became a college football folk hero with his prolific arm and captivating personality. Minshew set Pac-12 single-season records (later to be shattered by Gordon) with 4,779 passing yards and 468 completions, earning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors while winning the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.
By the midway point of Minshew’s lone season as WSU’s starter, the quarterback was being considered a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate. After he led the Cougars to a 69-point romp of Arizona – in which he threw seven touchdowns – it seemed plausible he’d travel to New York City as a finalist for college football’s top award. Minshew didn’t get a ticket to the Big Apple, but he was still an impressive fifth in Heisman voting – the second-highest finish by a WSU player, next to Ryan Leaf’s third-place finish in 1997.
‘Woodstock’ ensues after massive USC upset: When Jamal Morrow scored on a 23-yard shovel pass from Luke Falk, the WSU running back trotted through the end zone, found a clump of USC fans and flashed two fingers – the Trojans’ marquee “Fight On” symbol – into the air.
Morrow and dozens of his WSU teammates grew up in Los Angeles and watched USC gained national recognition with Pete Carroll, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. When the Trojans never offered them, many made it a personal goal to knock off the storied Southern Cal program. They got their wish on a cool September night in 2017.
The quarterback duel between WSU’s Luke Falk and USC’s Sam Darnold brought more than 20 NFL scouts to Martin Stadium, but Falk outperformed his eventual New York Jets teammate, completing 34 of 51 passes for 340 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Erik Powell booted a late field goal to put the Cougars in front by three points.
USC squandered its final scoring opportunity when WSU freshman linebacker Jahad Woods shot through the Trojans’ offensive line to sack Darnold, causing the ball to pop out. Derek Moore pounced and the Cougars wrapped up a 30-27 victory over the No. 5 team in the country.
Students hopped over the guardrails and poured onto the field to celebrate, prompting Leach to describe the scene as such in a postgame interview with ESPN: “It’s a good win. There’s a lot of people. It’s like Woodstock, except everybody’s got their clothes on.”
Falk sets Pac-12 career passing record: He always cherished wins more than his stats, but by the end of Falk’s career, it was impossible to brush off the quarterback’s place in the Pac-12 record books.
Falk took over as WSU’s full-time starter toward the end of his redshirt freshman season in 2014 – replacing the injured Halliday – and began his assault on the conference’s career passing record immediately. In his first start, Falk threw for 471 yards and five touchdowns against Oregon State. In his second, Falk threw for 601 yards against Arizona, before adding 355 to his season total in the season finale against Washington.
With 1,859 yards as freshman, 4,566 as a sophomore, 4,468 as a junior and 3,593 as a senior, Falk became the first player in conference history to throw for more than 14,000 yards in a career. The former walk-on surpassed Oregon State’s Sean Mannion – the previous record-holder with 13,600 – with a 9-yard completion to Morrow in a Senior Day win over Stanford.
Hilinski leads stunning comeback vs. Boise State: A nonconference game against Boise State in 2017 got off to an inauspicious start when the Broncos scored three straight touchdowns in the second half to lead 31-10 with 10:53 left in the game.
There was more doom for WSU when Falk went down with a wrist injury, leaving the game and returning only for a brief moment before finally exiting for good. If the Cougars were to stage an improbable – almost impossible – comeback, it would be up to backup QB Tyler Hilinski.
After Hilinski got some jitters out with an early interception, the promising sophomore fired a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jamire Calvin, giving the Cougars some life. Pelluer intercepted Montell Cozart, returning it 36 yards for a touchdown to make it a one-score game, and WSU’s defense stopped the Broncos to put the ball back in Hilinski’s hands.
Hilinski tossed a short touchdown to Morrow to force overtime. After the teams traded field goals during the first period and touchdowns during the second, BSU was kept to a field goal in the third. Hilinski delivered another signature moment in the third OT, throwing to Morrow, who skated around the edge for a 22-yard touchdown to stamp a 47-44 victory for the Cougars.
“It’s just a testament to the change of the program,” Morrow said afterward.
Improbable turnaround gives Cougars Apple Cup win: A photograph of late WSU President Floyd holding the golden trophy alongside Leach still is one of the most indelible snapshots of the decade.
It was one of the most dramatic Apple Cup games in series history and the most memorable one for a younger generation of Cougar football fans. To this day, it’s also the biggest comeback in a rivalry game that’s been played 112 times since 1900.
WSU trailed the 2012 game 28-10 in the fourth quarter despite leading 10-7 at halftime. Three Cougar turnovers in the third quarter allowed the Huskies to pull in front by 18 points.
The fourth-quarter turnaround started when Carl Winston ran in a 2-yard touchdown. Not long after, a long pass from Jeff Tuel to Isiah Myers set up Winston’s second touchdown, and the Cougars completed the 2-point conversion to trim the deficit to 28-25. Andrew Furney then booted a field goal, tying it at 28 and forcing overtime.
The game’s top highlight followed. With pressure from Logan Mayes, UW QB Keith Price threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by defensive lineman Toni Pole and taken back to the 5-yard line. Even though Pole couldn’t bring it all the way back, the pick allowed the Cougars to win 31-28 on Furney’s 27-yard field goal.
Gabe Marks enters Pac-12 record books: Leach’s offense has benefited wide receivers almost as much as it had quarterbacks, and no pass-catcher took better advantage of his time in the Air Raid than Gabe Marks.
Nobody in the Pac-12 caught more passes than the 6-foot, 190-pound outside receiver from Venice, California. Marks fittingly broke the conference record set by Colorado’s Nelson Spruce on a touchdown pass from Falk in the fourth quarter of a 56-21 rout of Cal in 2016.
“I was running off with the ball. I looked at one ref and I was like, ‘No!’ ” Marks said. “Then I was running and another ref was like, ‘Ball! Ball!’ and I was like, ‘No! It’s my ball!’ I just ran off the field.”
The four-year starter finished his career as WSU’s all-time leader in receptions (316), receiving yards (3,453) and touchdown receptions (37).
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