Cougars have bad memories of last game played at Utah

  • By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
  • Tuesday, September 23, 2014 8:30pm
  • SportsSports

PULLMAN — For the dwindling number of Washington State football players old enough to remember the last trip, Saturday’s return to Rice-Eccles Stadium is a reminder of likely the lowest point in their careers.

A 49-6 loss to a 3-5 Utah team was bad enough, but it is the game’s aftermath that lingers.

Head coach Mike Leach called the team’s effort “pitiful,” said that not everyone in the visiting locker room would be invited back in 2013 and sent the entire starting offensive and defensive lines to address the media as units, a gesture that visibly affected the players and led to Travis Long storming out of the postgame press conference.

“Being up there after that game, it sucked, you know,” said left guard Gunnar Eklund, the only remaining member of that day’s starting offensive line. “Just because we didn’t play up to our potential, we didn’t give full effort, we didn’t do the things we were supposed to do and it hurt. It did, it stung and it still … I won’t ever forget it.”

The coach wants his players’ focus as far as possible from games that happened two years ago, back in his first season when the program was young and the buy-in was fledgling.

During his weekly Monday press conference the extent of Leach’s reflection was to say, “This isn’t last time. This is this time so we’re just worried about that.”

But his words after the game were clearly designed to have an impact on his players, and Eklund said they still resonate. The Cougars are coming off a 38-31 loss to No. 2 Oregon in which their effort was never in doubt.

“(I) thought we played extremely hard, I thought we took a step,” Leach said. “I thought we improved as a team.”

This Saturday’s trip to Utah will require similar determination. Salt Lake City is a tough place to win as No. 5 Stanford found out last year in a 27-21 loss. No. 23 Arizona State escaped with a one-point win, and No. 2 UCLA was more than happy to leave with a 34-27 win in a tight game.

The last time the Cougars were there they did not exhibit the mental toughness to even have a shot at a win. Ideally, Leach’s comments after that game served as a challenge to his players.

Two years later, the linemen who were sent to answer for the team’s performance that day — Eklund and defensive lineman Xavier Cooper — have the chance to meet it in the same building where it was issued.

“I’m excited to go back. I’ve been wanting to go back to Utah for a while just because we owe them one there,” Eklund said. “(That game) did stay with me a little bit. I’m excited to go back and play them and that game’s far gone, it’s not us, it’s not Cougar football, but deep down it’s still with me.”

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