TUCSON, AZ. – Three years ago, Darryl Monroe took a gamble on a struggling football program and moved from sunny Florida to oft-frigid Pullman to play for the Washington State Cougars.
On Saturday afternoon, in Florida-like sunshine, Monroe’s gamble paid off in impressive fashion. The Cougars, riding a three-game losing streak and teetering on the brink of elimination from bowl consideration, upset Arizona 24-17 on a late touchdown and a last-play stop on defense.
“Ever since I got here,” Monroe told reporters afterward in the bowels of Arizona Stadium, “I felt like everyone was just against us. Everybody laughed at us. No one believed in us. Nobody ever gave us a chance.”
The Cougars still have a ways to – a long ways, it seems at times – but they evened their record at 5-5 with two games left in the regular season. Both games are winnable – at home Saturday against Utah, on the road the following Friday against Washington. The Utes have lost four in a row, and the Cougars are tied for fourth place in the Pac-12 North with the banged-up Huskies.
If the Cougars split the two, they’ll be bowl-eligible and almost certainly will go to their first bowl game since 2003. Not that Monroe or any other Cougars were willing to talk about it after Saturday’s game.
“We’re not thinking about it,” said Monroe, a hard-nosed linebacker. “We’re just thinking about the next game. If you start thinking about bowl games, you’ll get a lack of focus..”
A glaring lack of focus saw the Cougars fall behind 21-0 in the first quarter of their previous game, a 55-21 home loss to Arizona State 16 days earlier. The Cougars also had a bye prior to the ASU game, so Saturday’s contest was just the second time WSU had played since an Oct. 12 loss at Oregon.
Rust figured to be a factor in Tucson, but the Cougars bolted to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
“We didn’t come out hyped,” Monroe said. “We weren’t all over the place. We came out with a good calm about ourselves.”
Monroe made no apologies for not being nearly as calm late in Saturday’s back-and-forth battle. After Connor Halliday’s second touchdown pass of the day snapped a 17-17 tie with two minutes left, Arizona drove the ball down to the WSU 13-yard line before the game ended with B.J. Denker’s pass landing softly in receiver Samajie Grant’s hands . . . just outside the right sideline in the end zone.
“Things felt like they were in slow motion,” Monroe said. “I guess that’s why you play the game. No one always wants a blowout win. That’s what makes competing fun.”
Yeah, but winning is WAY more fun than just competing. The last time the Cougars won five in a season, or three conference games, was in 2007. The last time the Cougars won three conference road games in a season was 2006.
“It won’t feel good unless we go 2-0 in these next two games,” Monroe insisted.
Following the Arizona State game, Halliday calmly informed reporters that the Cougars fully intended to win their final three games to finish 7-5 and go to a bowl. Saturday’s game, and the clutch manner in which it was produced, did nothing to lessen Halliday’s resolve.
“I think this shows the resilience of this group that I talked about all the way back to Lewiston,” the start of fall camp in Lewiston, ID., Halliday said. “We’re not going to quit. We aren’t perfect by any means, obviously. We have our holes here and there.
“But we’re a resilient group that doesn’t quit on each other; that really loves playing football with one another and really cares about one another. It’s fun to be on a team like this.”
Halliday takes plenty of heat from Cougar faithful for throwing interceptions, and he threw his 19th of the year Saturday. The redshirt junior from Spokane also threw a pair of touchdown passes, giving him 22 this season and 46 in his career. He’s tied for fifth all-time at WSU with the legendary Drew Bledsoe.
“I thought it was the best game he’s played,” coach Mike Leach said. It might have been the best game the Cougars have played as a whole this year.
“It feels a lot like the USC game (a 10-7 win at USC on Sept. 7), but it’s more intense,” Monroe said.
The intensity, not to mention the stakes, only rises the next two weeks. The Cougars can build off Saturday’s win, which included big-time plays at key times on both sides of the ball – the type of plays WSU teams have consistently failed to make in recent years.
“A positive step,” Leach summed up.