By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — It’s been a decade-long wait for the Washington State football team to return to a bowl game, and nothing was certain until athletic director Bill Moos had the invite in hand.
But on Sunday afternoon Moos finally received word that the Cougars were officially invited to face off against Colorado State in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, returning WSU to the postseason for the first time since 2003.
The game will be played at University Stadium in Albuquerque on Dec. 21. Game time is 11 a.m. PST. ESPN will televise the game.
“I’m excited about going to a bowl,” coach Mike Leach said. “Every bowl I’ve ever been to is a great experience and I’m familiar with New Mexico and the city of Albuquerque and couldn’t be more excited to go.”
CSU accepted its invitation Saturday morning.
Because the Cougars finished the season with a 6-6 record, there was no guarantee that the team would receive a bowl berth. However, the team was the last chosen by a Pac-12 affiliated bowl, before Arizona and Oregon State, who received at-large bids.
“It’s great to be able to welcome the Washington State Cougars back to the college football postseason, and for the first time have them in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl,” said New Mexico Bowl executive director Jeff Siembieda. “The Cougs are an exciting team with a marquee passing attack and a passionate fan base that has been very vocal about wanting to be here with their team.”
The Cougars will face a stiff opponent in the Rams, who are the only team in the country to boast both a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,500-yard runner. Coached by Jim McElwain, who is in his second year at the school, CSU is heading to its first bowl game since 2008. McElwain played quarterback at Eastern Washington from 1980-83. He was also part of the EWU coaching staff 1985-94, first as a graduate assistant and finishing as the quarterbacks and receivers coach.
Running back Kapri Bibbs leads the nation with 28 rushing touchdowns, and has rushed for 1,572 yards on the season. Quarterback Garrett Grayson has completed 62 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,327 yards and 21 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions.
Grayson is the nephew of former WSU All-American linebacker Danny Grayson.
The players and coaches did not gather to hear the announcement of their destination. It would have been a vain attempt at surprise as, like most people, the team learned of their invitation through social media rather than from the invitation itself.
“We finished practice before the announcement came. It’s funny, because everybody started to ask about where we were going about a week ago. Most people I know or talked to thought I lied to them for a week, but I didn’t know,” Leach said.
“Of course, then you get a lot of ‘let me know where the bowl is as soon as you find out’ from a ton of people and everybody’s excited. Then typically about an hour-and-a-half before the bowl announcement my phone starts blowing up and informs me where we’re going.”
The school is responsible for $150,000 in ticket sales. Because the Pac-12 is contracted with the New Mexico Bowl, the conference will subsidize half of the unsold tickets.
Tickets to the game can now be purchased on the WSU athletics website. Moos said that 2,500 tickets had been reserved through the athletic department prior to the bowl’s announcement.
“That’s a real good sign, I fully expect us to have a very good contingent of fans when we head down there to play this game,” Moos said.
Moos added that WSU will probably lose money on the game. While the New Mexico Bowl has a payout of $750,000, the school will be sending the band, spirit groups and a number of staffers as well as the team and coaches.
“It’s been my practice to do these things right, and make sure we have the proper people there,” Moos said. “We’re not going to be extravagant in regards to taking the whole staff in the building, but those that I feel were essential contributors to the success of this season we will have along.”