PULLMAN — Damante Horton, Washington State cornerback, was musing on another one of his pick-sixes for the Cougars. But he could have been talking big picture, too, about WSU’s seemingly interminable campaign to get to a bowl game.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it doesn’t feel like it’s real.”
Oh, it’s real. The students who swarmed the field euphorically on a cold, clear November day here Saturday know that it’s real. Left for dead after a downbeat October, the Cougars continued their rebirth with a 49-37 victory over Utah, giving them that magical sixth victory that means bowl eligibility.
After they had unstuck themselves from the adoring students, the Cougar players hewed to the party line about six wins meaning eligibility, not certainty, something they can only attain with a victory Friday in the Apple Cup.
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“It would be terrible to build the program to where it is and leave it up to old guys making decisions,” said quarterback Connor Halliday.
But I’d bet Bill Moos, the athletic director who once put Joey Harrington’s image on a billboard in Times Square when he was at Oregon, will get the Cougars into a bowl, if he has to put up the CUB, The Coug and his second-born son to do it.
It was a day when the Mike Leach offense looked a lot like the one that made his name at Texas Tech. The Cougars scored 49 points — granted, 14 of them courtesy of interceptions by Horton and Casey Locker — and WSU seemed to have every answer for the Utah defense. It was the most points by the Cougars in a conference game since they hung 55 on Oregon back in 2003.
“Their skill on offense absolutely throttled our skill on defense,” said Kyle Whittingham, the Utah coach.
Somehow, through that dreadful three-game coma against Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State, the Cougars emerged intact. They allowed 169 points in that siege and 625 yards a game. Yet they learned to be resilient.
Andrew Furney, the kicker who had a 52-yard field goal, spoke to that resolve.
“The biggest thing is just belief,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot. This senior class has been through a lot. We’ve worked hard, and we just kind of said, ‘Enough’s enough.’
“It’s not going to be ‘next year.’ We got tired of hearing that.”
What crowd the Cougars had, 23,112, was sparse but supportive. Guess for those missing 10,000 students and season-ticket holders, bowl games have become blasé.
The faithful on hand were taken on an 86-point thrill-fest, which the Cougars began by bursting to a three-touchdown lead in the first 10 minutes. But it just couldn’t be that easy, not when you’ve suffered so long. Utah returned serve and made it scary, as backup quarterback Adam Schulz mixed explosive plays with scatter-gun throws on which it was difficult to identify the intended receiver.
It was one of those big gains, a 64-yard touchdown pass to a grievously wide-open tight end, Jake Murphy, that drew the Utes to 43-37 early in the fourth quarter, and if there wasn’t a sense of impending doom among many of the partisans, they aren’t being truthful.
So, third-and-seven, WSU at its 29, and five minutes left. Halliday, who was only as marvelous as his offensive line, flipped a short pass to Dom Williams, and suddenly, Williams ran like he spied a bowl official wearing a garish jacket, calling him to the east end zone.
He outran Keith McGill and Michael Walker to it for a 71-yard play that turned the house bananas.
“I read the safety and kind of flattened it out,” said Williams. “I took off. That’s what I do.”
In the chess match between WSU’s offense and a defense that led the nation in sacks, the Cougars had the Utes on their heels all day, in blitzes or coverage. Halliday threw for 488 yards and in the signal, successive victories over Arizona and Utah, he has completed 67.8 percent with one interception in 115 passes.
Still, he wanted to talk Apple Cup rather than postseason.
“I haven’t played in an Apple Cup yet,” he said. “I’m kind of excited to lose my virginity.”
After a decade out of the postseason, so, too, a whole legion of crimson fans.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org