PULLMAN – By the time Jayden de Laura tucked the ball into Max Borghi’s tummy, Arizona’s rushing linemen were already on loops to the outside, evacuating the middle – the kind of cooperation that’s allowed the Wildcats to lose 10 of 11 games this fall.
So quickly was Borghi through the vacant lot and into the secondary that his first contact was with a surprised Brad Robinson, the umpire, whose tackling technique proved to be a little rusty. But he did provide a helpful screen to inhibit Arizona safety Jaydin Young’s angle, and Borghi veered toward the left sideline where he ran through two more tackles and followed Joey Hobert’s block into the end zone.
Twenty-six yards in all – not necessarily finesse, not quite pure power and not merely gratuitous noogies to a hapless defense. But all of it a kind of art.
And luckily, all this happened while a weird and soupy Palouse fog had dissipated for a bit, making it visible even from the upper reaches of Martin Stadium. Not that anyone sat through near-freezing temperatures, snow and sleet Friday night to park themselves in the upper reaches of a two-thirds-empty stadium.
But even when you couldn’t see a thing, it was stunning to witness.
The Washington State Cougars – written off as dead in September, political afterthoughts in October – are bowl eligible on the strength of a 44-18 romp past Arizona on Friday night.
Which bowl? Does it even matter?
No, they aren’t going to end a decadeslong Rose Bowl drought. Maybe they won’t cut a wide swath along the Riverwalk or the Strip. They don’t have a swaggering publicity magnet at quarterback to grab a nation’s attention.
And yet even just a game over .500, these Cougs may still be the most deserving among the 17 bowl teams in the school’s history – if only for the fact that they didn’t allow themselves to become emotional road kill.
Nor were they allowing themselves to think that they’ve arrived at some toes-in the-sand destination with a sixth victory.
Because they haven’t.
Friday is the Apple Cup, a pothole for the Cougars going back into the middle of the previous decade and now to be played amid the strangest circumstance possible: with interim head coaches on both sidelines.
“I’m thinking about it right now,” senior linebacker Jahad Woods said. “I want to win this game so bad – not only for this team, but for my teammates who didn’t win it the last five years.”
In each of those five years, the Cougars had the consolation of a bowl game.
It’s the consolation part they’d prefer to shed.
But until that bit of business is settled, the Cougs will have their big moment in the funky fog. And they didn’t back into anything, throttling the Wildcats in the same fashion that the Pac-12’s elite has – among which, in fact, the Cougars may count themselves.
They did it with the most seniorish of Senior Nights – the touchdowns all made by seniors, along with a slew of the biggest plays.
No one came up bigger than Borghi, not technically a senior – he’s eligible to return for another year – but who went through the goodbye ceremonies before the game. Beyond that opening touchdown, there was another long burst of 43 yards and a career-high 139 yards rushing – his first 100-yard game since 2019.
“Our fans,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said, “will remember Max.”
But for whatever stamp the Cougar seniors put on their home farewell, it’s the one they applied in midseason that has counted the most.
After that 1-3 start in September. After their former head coach and four assistants were released after refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, as mandated for state employees.
“The biggest part is that this was player driven,” Dickert said. “After everything that happened with the coaching change, the captains came together and said, ‘We will change the momentum. We will move forward, keep pressing.’ That was the biggest moment of all this stuff.
“It’s bonded us even closer together and that’s why we’ve continued to get these results.”
The Cougars throw around all the popular buzzwords – commitment, brotherhood, love, sacrifice – that every successful team does. Few of those teams have to pull themselves up after the kind of pratfall the Cougs experienced to start the season, or the no-fault-of-their-own blow of losing their head coach.
“These guys have even changed my life,” Dickert insisted. “I’ll tell the story about this team and persevering, because this is the story of life.”
Here’s something else they’re pushing in the process: Dickert’s candidacy to be something more than an interim. An Apple Cup victory could well be the clincher – and maybe should be.
That’s not why Dickert is their most unabashed booster, however.
“They’ve given me everything,” he said. “I feel like I fall short. I can’t give them enough.”
But if you could see anything through the fog Friday night, it was that coach and players have given each other all they need to spend another December together.
Not just bowl eligible, but fulfilled. Rewarded. Deserving.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.