ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The Washington State Cougars waited 10 years to play in a bowl game. The Cougars finally cracked the secret bowl code Saturday afternoon at the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, but WSU players, coaches and fans might need another 10 years to recover from the disaster.
The Cougars lost a game in which they never trailed until the final horn. Lost a game in which their quarterback tied an all-time bowls record by throwing six touchdown passes. Lost a game in which they led by 22 points late in the first half, and by 15 points with less than three minutes left in the game.
The Cougars sandwiched two lost fumbles around Colorado State’s second touchdown in the final 2:52; gave up a two-point conversion on a Statue of Liberty play to create a tie with 33 seconds to go; then lost 48-45 on Jared Roberts’ 41-yard field goal as time expired.
“It’s real,” Colorado State cornerback Shaq Bell said, “but still unbelievable.”
Tell the Cougars about it, Shaq. They led 14-0 after less than four minutes of play. They led by double digits most of the game.
“Gildan is probably mad at me, because everyone turned to the other games (on TV),” Rams coach Jim McElwain cracked.
ESPN viewers who stayed until the bitter (for WSU) end were treated to one of the most amazing comebacks in bowl history. Fans in Albuquerque hadn’t seen anything like it since . . . well, last year, when Arizona scored twice in the final 46 seconds to down Nevada, 49-48.
Washington State coach Mike Leach blew off his standard post-game appearance on the Cougars radio network, and he grew a bit testy at times during a press conference. However, Leach and his players were surprisingly composed for the most part when they analyzed The Collapse.
“Colorado State finished. We didn’t,” Leach summed up.
“We got too complacent,” senior linebacker Justin Sagote said. “Kinda thought we won the game pretty early. It kind of bit us in the butt.”
“It’s a bummer,” freshman wide receiver River Cracraft said, “because we worked so hard. But it’s just going to motivate us this off-season and hopefully be at the top of the Pac-12 next season.”
Boy, give the kid big points for brass. However, for all the progress the Cougars made this season, they finished 6-7 and failed to post a winning record for the 10th consecutive season. It is safe to presume oddsmakers will not be listing WSU as the 2014 Pac-12 favorites.
That said, the Cougars doubled their win total from a year ago, and they return a solid batch of talent. The bowl appearance was WSU’s first in 10 years; Leach says the incoming recruits look like the best group his staff has landed since coming to Pullman after the 2011 season; and more quality recruits undoubtedly will be lured to Pullman once the glitzy new football operations building is completed prior to next season.
“I think it’s huge to make a bowl for the first time in 10 years,” Leach said. “I think that’s gigantic.”
A bowl victory, therefore, would have been downright enormous for WSU. It was not to be, and Leach gave the 5½-point underdogs from Colorado State their due.
“I give Colorado State a lot of credit,” Leach said. “They played extremely hard. They were behind the whole game, and they never gave up, and they got rewarded.”
On the other hand, Leach wondered aloud if the Cougars got what they deserved to a certain extent.
“I think we’re a little better team than we honestly, across the board, believe we are,” he said. “But some of that has to do with confidence breeds success, and success breeds confidence.”
Leach deserves credit for showing patience with junior quarterback Connor Halliday, who overcame periodic struggles to put up some of the greatest passing numbers in Pac-12 history in his first year as a full-time starter.
Halliday was named Most Outstanding Offensive Player after setting New Mexico Bowl passing records with 37 completions, 58 attempts, 410 yards and the six touchdowns. The latter mark tied the school record set by Jason Gesser in three overtimes in 2000.
“Connor played great,” Cracraft said after posting season highs of nine catches and 125 receiving yards. “You can’t ask for anything else from him. He’s a great quarterback, and he’s a great leader, too.”
Halliday maintained his poise after engaging in a brief verbal exchange with Colorado State defensive line coach Greg Lupfer immediately following the first of Halliday’s five touchdown passes in the opening half. Television replays appeared to show Lupfer screaming an obscenity(ies) and possibly a homophobic slur at Halliday.
“A coach grabbed me and said some profane things to me,” Halliday said, “and that’s all I’ll say about it.”
Television did not catch any coach “grabbing” Halliday, though wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted appeared to make brief contact with Halliday while screaming at him as the confrontation with Lufper was ending. Lupfer issued an apology on Twitter that read, “I am truly sorry for what I said.”
Leach quickly identified Cracraft’s unusual skill set for a true freshman and started him right away. More brilliance by Leach: He gave junior college transfer Theron West his first significant playing time of the year, and the tiny running back – who had one carry all season – led WSU’s paltry running game with 17 yards, scored a touchdown on his first catch of the season and blocked a punt.
If Leach is to be credited with good work in regard to Halliday, Cracraft and West, he also deserves to be questioned for giving reserve running back Jeremiah Laufasa his first carry of the day late in Saturday’s game. Laufasa promptly coughed up a fumble on the chilly day — Teondray Caldwell set up the winning field goal with a fumbled kickoff return — but Leach barked at a reporter who dared to ask the coach if he was concerned about using players in key situations when they haven’t been playing.
“What the hell kind of question is that?” Leach asked.
A perfectly reasonable one, coach. The sort of question that leaders of young men are expected to answer in times of crisis. It seems like the least a man can do for $2.25 million a year — plus a $75,000 bonus for going to a bowl game that cost his school money — after overseeing one of the most disastrous finishes in bowl history.