Sun Bowl victors, these may be best Cougs ever

  • Craig Hill / The News Tribune
  • Monday, December 31, 2001 9:00pm
  • Sports

By Craig Hill

The News Tribune

EL PASO, Texas – Seven years after he last coached Washington State University to a bowl victory, Mike Price had reason to get carried away.

The celebration was just starting after the Cougars survived a late Purdue rally for a 33-27 Sun Bowl victory when Price shouted into a microphone: “This is the best Cougar team in history!”

The WSU portion of the 47,812 in attendance – the 10th largest crowd in Sun Bowl history – roared its approval.

And for good reason.

The Cougars became the first Pacific-10 Conference team to win a bowl game this postseason and they finished with 10 victories (10-2) for the third time in school history – and did so despite injury problems and the loss of four starters before the season began.

But the Cougars won the 1997 conference title and went to the Rose Bowl, so some people weren’t quite sure Price was thinking straight. A few minutes after his proclamation, he was asked if this truly was the best team.

“I don’t know,” Price said. “But they darn well are one of the best.”

If the 2001 and ‘97 teams were the only contenders, safety Lamont Thompson knows which team he’d pick. He was the only guy to start for both teams.

“I think this team is the best,” Thompson said, “because we had to overcome so much to get to this point.”

And they had to overcome a lot – four turnovers, nine penalties, nonstop blitzing and a successful onside kick by the Boilermakers – to hold off Purdue on Monday afternoon.

The 13th-ranked Cougars entered the game heavily favored, and for awhile it appeared they’d blow Purdue away like many expected.

On the third play of the game, sophomore Jason David picked off a pass by Purdue redshirt freshman Kyle Orton and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown.

Minutes later WSU quarterback Jason Gesser threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to Mike Bush, six plays after Purdue’s Antwaun Rogers picked off a pass only to fumble it back to the Cougars.

“I think we got too relaxed at that point,” David said. “We got too comfortable. That almost cost us.”

In the second quarter, Purdue made WSU very uncomfortable. The Boilermakers blitzed Gesser, knocking him down almost every time he tried to pass.

“They were bringing more guys than we could block,” WSU offensive lineman Joey Hollenbeck said.

Gesser completed one pass in the second quarter and finished the half with six completions on 22 attempts.

“I’ve never seen so many blitzes in my life,” Price said.

While Purdue’s defense, ranked third in the Big Ten Conference, gave WSU fits, its offense, statistically one of the worst in the country, did the same on its way to 474 yards. As a result, Purdue dominated the second quarter.

Purdue scored its first touchdown after a fumble by WSU receiver Jerome Riley. The Boilermakers strung together three more drives to score 20 points in the quarter.

Meanwhile, the Cougars’ only score of the quarter was a 47-yard Drew Dunning field goal that came courtesy of a bad snap that punter Alan Cox turned into 20-yard first-down run.

“But I thought our coaches made some wonderful halftime adjustments,” Price said. “They settled down one side of the ball, the offense … and they fired up the defense.”

Gesser started taking snaps in the shotgun to allow himself time to get rid of the ball. Gesser, who completed 15 of 45 passes for a touchdown and three interceptions, threw for 178 of his 281 yards in the second half.

On defense, the Cougars installed a new scheme they had practiced all season but never used. Their “Okie” defense, with six defensive backs, helped them slow down Purdue’s passing attack, even though Orton threw for a Sun Bowl-record 419 yards.

The Cougars tied the game quickly in the second half when Thompson, who matched David’s two interceptions, picked off Orton’s second pass, which led moments later to a Dunning field goal.

Later in the third quarter, Gesser led a 51-yard drive he capped with a 1-yard touchdown run. He led two more drives for field goals and a 33-20 lead, but the Cougars still needed a big defensive stand to win.

Orton threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Taylor Stubblefield with 1:53 to play to cut Purdue’s deficit to six points. The ensuing onside kick bounced off Billy Newman’s shoulder pads and Purdue recovered near midfield.

“I was saying please, God, help me catch the ball,” Newman said, “but I think he was busy talking to somebody else.”

Two plays later, Purdue had a second-and-2 play at the Cougars’ 22 with plenty of time remaining. Orton’s next pass was incomplete because linebacker Raonall Smith got his face. Defensive tackle Jeremey Williams deflected the next pass.

Then, on fourth down, Smith spiked Orton’s pass with his left hand.

The game was over but the debate over where this team ranks among WSU’s best teams was just beginning.

“I’d love to see this team play the ‘97 team,” Thompson said. “It would be a great game. I don’t know who’d win. Probably whatever team I played for.”

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