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Sports >  WSU football

John Blanchette: In a season filled with adversity, Washington State can’t overcome once more in Sun Bowl defeat

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 31, 2021

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

EL PASO, Texas – You know it as the Sun Bowl – sorry, the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl – and being the second oldest of college football’s postseason spectacles makes it the … what? The Granduncle of Them All?

But let’s bottom line it for the Washington State Cougars:

It was the Spring Game from Hell.

Spring games are routinely played in lousy weather. Spring games are heavy on forehead-slap mistakes and short on rhythm and crisp execution. Spring games see veteran players sitting one out and mark the jittery debuts of too many guys you’ve never heard of before – and may never hear of again – who find themselves in over their heads. Spring games reveal all the holes you have to fill and problems you have to solve before the games starting counting again.

Except you never lose the spring game.

That’s the hellish part.

The Cougars did manage to rally themselves from possibly the worst half of football in their bowl history and nearly made a folk hero out of a walk-on backup quarterback Friday afternoon – the old resiliency and resolve that has carried them since their former head coach chose politics over his players. But they still ended up 24-21 losers to Central Michigan, which pulled off the unprecedented feat of being selected to play in the Arizona Bowl and winning the Sun Bowl instead.

That’s right – the Cougars fell to a fill-in.

A four-loss fill-in, at that, from the Mid-American Conference, which had never before beaten a Pac-12 team.

That left CMU coach Jim McElwain to happily endure the Frosted Flakes bath as the clock hit :00, part of the new bowl trend that sees a bucket of the sponsor’s product – mayonnaise, cereal, whatever – dumped over the winner’s head.

This could become problematic if Roadrunner and Wile E. ever pony up to underwrite the Acme Anvil Bowl.

“I wish I could play the Cougs every bowl game – this is the second one I’ve won,” said McElwain, who was at Colorado State when the Rams stunned Wazzu in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl. “I’m all right with that.”

Nor did he lose any sleep knowing he’d line up against a Cougars team without the likes of running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh, tackles Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan, and defensive backs Jaylen Watson and Daniel Isom – all unavailable through a combination of eye-to-the-draft opting out, injury and disciplinary matters.

But why should he? The Chippewas were in the same straits.

It is the new reality for teams good enough for the bloated bowl picture but not good enough for the College Football Playoff. Players can talk the brotherhood talk all season long, but there comes a time when it’s every man for himself – an example set each time a coach lunges for more millions before his team’s season is truly over.

The bowls are TV programming, an exhibition season. Ratings suggest viewers remain invested even when the participants might not be.

Investment seemed to be an issue for the Cougars in that dreadful first half – seven punts, minus-12 yards in the opening quarter, quarterback Jayden de Laura missing targets, slipshod special teams play. Trying to function without their two best offensive linemen was a bigger one, something the Chippewas managed to do just fine.

“Our staff has a lot of history against the run-and-shoot – morphed into some of the Air Raid,” McElwain said. “We knew what we could do up front against their O-line … and we did it without having to (bring more) pressure.

“What you want to do against those teams is make them one-dimensional, and that’s what they are.”

So it was 21-0, Chippewas, at halftime and then de Laura didn’t return for the second half, a leg injury sending him for X-rays. With backup Jarrett Guarantano being an unexplained no-show, that left WSU’s comeback hopes in the hands of sophomore walk-on Victor Gabalis.

And maybe it’s exactly what they needed, because suddenly the Cougars remembered who they were: overcomers.

OK, they wouldn’t quite overcome, even with Gabalis’ two touchdown passes. The rally was short-circuited by a bad call and a bad spot – WSU coach Jake Dickert opting to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Cougars 32 with a full 10:37 to play in a one-score game. Nakia Watson made the yardage, but not to the satisfaction of Big 10 eyeballs on the field and in the booth. The deciding CMU field goal came a minute later.

“It was a momentum call,” Dickert said. “But I’m going to walk into that locker room every day and trust and believe in those guys, and they’re going to trust and believe in me.”

Trust and belief took the Cougars a long way in 2021. McElwain admired it from three time zones away.

“What they went through in Pullman this year,” he said, “nobody should have to go through that.”

But the opt-outs of the Sun Bowl underscored what a fine line Wazzu walked – and achieved with – despite a roster of modest depth. And the game itself demonstrated that Dickert’s heaviest lifting – replacing those missing standouts and others who did play, and coaching up what’s left – is still ahead.

College football isn’t always a bowl of sugary flakes. It can also be a little slice of hell.

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