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Utah and Washington State play a Pac-12 football game Saturday, and let’s call it what it is: the most important one for WSU in seven years.

The Cougars (5-5) can get bowl-eligible. There are people today having senior moments who were wearing Oshkosh overalls the last time that happened.

It seems so teed up for the Cougars. Utah is 1-6 in Pac-12 games — albeit a rugged, grudging, hard-nosed 1-6 — and the Utes have lost their dual-talented starting quarterback, Travis Wilson.

And it’s at home, in Pullman.

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Gnaw on these numbers a bit: The 2013 Cougars are 3-1 in Pac-12 games on the road. But in their last 24 conference games in Pullman, WSU is 3-21.

Or say it this way: Mike Leach’s current team has won as many league games on the road as the program has won at home in the Pac-12 in the four years of the Paul Wulff regime and two years under Leach.

You know, the home-field disadvantage.

Martin Stadium was once considered one of the hotboxes in the conference. Visiting teams would seemingly be transported from their comfort zone by the ride in through the remote, rolling hills, to be greeted by a lively, invested fan base in a cozy stadium in the middle of campus.

That was then. Lately, the reputation has flipped. This is the book now on Martin Stadium: hard for fans to get to, inconvenient if you have to negotiate country roads home at the witching hour — courtesy of the Pac-12’s TV machinations — and a venue where, too often, fans have scattered by the start of the fourth quarter, victimized again by bad football.

When I caught up with WSU athletic director Bill Moos on Wednesday, he invoked a familiar coaching phrase.

“We have to change the culture,” he said. “The fans play a huge role in our effort to be victorious on Saturdays. They have to be there early and need to stay until the end.

“This could be one where it’s coming right down to the wire and the crowd will be the difference.”

As it happens, the Cougars are wrestling with an old bugaboo for this game. Students are free of classes before Saturday for the weeklong Thanksgiving break.

In recent years, that hasn’t augured well. Rewind to 2007, Bill Doba’s final season, when WSU was 4-6 and hosting Oregon State as a slight favorite.

On game’s eve, you couldn’t miss a steady stream of cars on State Highway 26 carrying students west from campus. WSU lost 52-17, in front of an announced 22,660.

It was two years ago that WSU played Utah in a similar situation, needing two wins to get bowl-eligible. Moos, who was three days removed from a clandestine trip to Key West, Fla., to interview Leach, remembers maybe 16,000 there for a snowy game WSU lost in overtime.

Knowing the history, WSU marketers did something smart. They’re staging fan and student appreciation day and giving away several flat-screen TVs, high-end electronic goodies and a bushel of other prizes like gift cards to local establishments. Some student will get to have Leach author his voice-mail message. That could include references to anybody from Andrew Jackson to Sinbad the Sailor.

“I’m getting all kinds of good buzz,” said Moos, regarding the Utah crowd.

So, too, WSU student-body vice president Kevin Massimino, for his constituency.

Massimino told me, “I think the resounding message on campus, from what I’ve heard and seen, is basically the notion that the Cougs did their part on the field and have been battling through the season, so it’s time for us to do our part.

“Something we’re trying to say is, you won’t necessarily remember that extra day of Thanksgiving break, but you will remember the Cougars becoming bowl-eligible.”

It was in the Apple Cup of 2006 that the Cougars, 6-5 but reeling in November, needed to beat Washington to get to a bowl. Heavily favored, they allowed five big plays that the Huskies turned into a 35-32 win.

WSU stayed home, and soon began putting a weird twist on an old theme: Home is where the heartache is.

Home not sweet for WSU
Year Home Away Overall
2013 2-3* 3-2 5-5
2012 2-4* 1-5 3-9
2011 3-3* 1-5 4-8
2010 1-5 1-5 2-10
2009 1-5* 0-6 1-11
Totals 9-20 6-23 15-43
*Played 1 home game in Seattle

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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