The Last Dance: Former WSU beat writers look back at the defining moments of their Cougar tenures
Maybe it was the Cougars’ 24-point underdog status against unbeaten and No. 1-ranked UCLA. Or maybe it was simply budget issues.
In any event, the columnist who normally traveled with me to Washington State road games was grounded. And I was assigned to fly solo to Los Angeles to cover what most of those in a Rose Bowl crowd of 59,000-plus believed would be a third straight loss for the Cougars, who were 4-3 after falling to Arizona and Arizona State the two previous Saturdays. UCLA, 7-0 and led by quarterback Troy Aikman, breezed to a 27-6 lead late in the third quarter before WSU, behind quarterback Timm Rosenbach, mounted a comeback that stunned a national television audience and produced the most memorable moment in my time on the beat.
Rosenbach threw for two second-half touchdowns – one an 81-yarder to Tim Stallworth; Jason Hanson added his third field goal of the game, and tailback Richie Swinton, who was filling in for injured starter Steve Broussard, capped a late 13-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run that put WSU up 34-30 midway through the fourth quarter. The Cougars’ upset dreams were put on hold, however, when Aikman engineered a frantic UCLA drive that reached WSU’s 6-yard line with under a minute to play. The Bruins, with no timeouts left, tried four consecutive pass plays into the end zone, but two were deflected, and two were off target.
The Cougars had pulled off, perhaps, the biggest upset in school history, and would go on to win their final four games – including a 24-22 victory over Houston in the Aloha Bowl. And head coach Dennis Erickson would split for Miami shortly thereafter. Adding to my memory, on a more personal level, was the postgame phone call back to the S-R sports desk, during which I was informed that I would need to file a sidebar feature, notebook AND column, along with my game story.
At least the Associated Press was able to supply us with a photo. Steve Bergum, WSU beat writer from 1987-95 My two seasons on the beat (1996-97) were two of the most memorable in the program’s history. There was always something interesting to write about: Ryan Leaf, the “Fab Five” receiving corps, the “Fat Five” offensive line and what the late, great Leon Bender nicknamed the “Legion of Doom” defense.
One memory stands above the others: Kevin McKenzie’s one-handed catch for the winning 51-yard touchdown at USC early in the 1997 season. This was the moment we learned this WSU team was different from so many others. This single play in the final minutes delivered more than a 28-21 upset.
It also delivered the Cougars’ first victory at USC since 1957 and the program’s first UCLA-USC season sweep. It placed the Cougars on a path to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years. WSU had jumped to a 21-6 halftime lead over the Trojans, but when USC’s R.
Jay Soward returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown, you didn’t have to be a cynic to figure what was likely to happen next. The game was slipping away until McKenzie took over with the score 21-21 in the late going. His 31-yard reception on third-and-12 set up the winning 51-yard connection.
Leaf made a quick read on the winning play. McKenzie reached high to make the catch, which coach Mike Price called one of the most impressive he had seen. McKenzie’s hard-nosed Fab Five teammate, Shawn McWashington, made a violent block to clear McKenzie’s path for the final sprint to the end zone.
The victory was so emotional for players and coaches. Defensive end Dorian Boose cried. Bender crowed.
Veteran coaches, from Bill Doba to Larry Lewis to Craig Bray, hugged each other and their players on the field so intensely, it was clear they appreciated the magnitude of the moment. Price led WSU fans in singing the school fight song in the west end zone. The Cougars were 2-0 on their way to a 9-1 regular season and a Rose Bowl date with Michigan.
Mike Sando, WSU beat writer from 1996-97 ••• In 2002, a Washington State team coached by Mike Price, the self-described “King of Poop Island,” came out smelling like a Rose. In an early December must-win the Cougars finally did what they must. A turnaround from just two weeks earlier when WSU did what it could to give everything away in the Apple Cup.
In that game, WSU quarterback Jason Gesser was sacked and broken. Without him, WSU failed to score with a first-and-goal from the 1, gave up a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead and lost in triple overtime to Washington and put a Rose Bowl berth in jeopardy. Two weeks later, still with a hurt and severely hobbled quarterback, WSU overcame all their struggles and history – and history of struggles – to win the Pac-10.
It was Washington State’s fourth Rose Bowl berth in school history. And only the second of the PCC, Pac-8 or Pac-10 era. The game that day wasn’t an instant classic or even close.
But it was a reflection of this team and that year. There were dizzying bursts of scoring – 17 points in 8 minutes. Devard Darling, a transfer from college football royalty Florida State, who had lost his twin Devaughn, found a new home, family and the end zone to start the game-defining burst of scoring.
There were a multitude of plays – two picks, four sacks, 54 total rushing yards allowed – by a defense that would have four starters drafted into the NFL. There were maddening stretches of head-slapping, here-we-go-again, trademark Cougar moments: A botched fake field goal. Poor communication led to an ill-fated onside kick that led directly to a UCLA touchdown.
And a blocked field goal. But in the end there was something rarely seen before and, unless the tides change in college football, will never be seen again – Washington State, a decided underdog in all things athletics for decades, making a memory that would last for years to come. Carter Strickland, WSU beat writer from 1998-2003 The rest of the folks sharing their memories here probably had a lot of positive ones to sift through.
Rose Bowls, 10-win seasons, Game Day. That sort of stuff. Uh, we’re not about that.
In the five seasons we covered Washington State football, the Cougars won 14 times. By the time we left the beat, exiting right after head coach Paul Wulff in 2011, they had lost 47 games, many of them blowouts. More than a third of the wins came in 2007, our first season and Bill Doba’s last, so it may come as no surprise our most memorable moment comes from that year.
And though it climaxed a career day for running back Dwight Tardy, it also included a season-ending injury. Such was the way the Cougars’ luck was running – and would continue to run for years. Washington State was 2-5 overall and winless in the Pac-10 when UCLA came to Martin Stadium in late October.
The Bruins brought with them the nation’s eighth-best run defense. A good day for Alex Brink to throw the ball? Nope. WSU gave it to Tardy over and over and the sophomore responded.
With less than a minute left, he had carried 36 times. The Cougars led 20-7. One more first down from their 49 and the Cougars would have their first conference win in five attempts.
Brink tossed the ball to Tardy. With UCLA attacking, he again broke free down the sideline, the end zone in view. As his offensive line raised its arms in celebration, Tardy made one last unbelievable cut, juked a Bruin and scored.
The O-line sprinted into the end zone and lifted him up. A season of tough defeats had turned into a run-filled domination. And joy for the Cougars.
Tardy finished with a career-high 214 yards on 37 carries but limped back to the sidelines as the game ended. Turns out, he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. His season was over.
No one knew that at the time. Or that Doba would be fired in a couple of months. That WSU would win nine games in Wulff’s tenure.
That the next winning season wouldn’t come until 2015. But that one moment? It was special. Vince Grippi, WSU beat writer from 2007-11 For all the memorable moments Washington State’s 2017 season delivered – Luke Falk’s chase of the Pac-12 career passing record, Tyler Hilinski’s overtime heroics in a late-night thriller against Boise State and Jahad Woods’ game-sealing strip sack of Sam Darnold in a stunning upset of No.
5 USC – I’d remiss not to choose the most iconic moment of the Cougars’ 2018 season, and perhaps the defining moment of Mike Leach’s tenure in Pullman. Plus, how can you go wrong with Gardner Minshew? WSU was ranked No. 25 and Oregon No.
12 when Justin Herbert’s Ducks paid Minshew’s Cougars a visit on Oct. 21, 2018. Oregon’s win over Washington the week prior meant the Ducks or Cougars would take control of the Pac-12 North, at least for the time being, with a victory.
Oregon’s buses weren’t the only ones rolling into Pullman that week. ESPN’s College GameDay convoy arrived four days earlier to prepare for the program’s first taping on WSU’s campus – a campaign that had been 15 years in the making after the Ol’ Crimson flag first appeared on the popular GameDay show. ESPN analyst Lee Corso boldly predicted a WSU upset, slipping on a Cougars mask while making his traditional headwear pick at the tail end of the GameDay program.
Corso’s confidence in WSU wasn’t misplaced. The Cougars went up 7-0 on a mesmerizing touchdown run from James Williams that saw the tailback wiggle through no less than eight tacklers and dive toward the pylon into the end zone for the game’s first score. Minshew and the passing attack were able to pad the lead with touchdown throws to Renard Bell, Easop Winston Jr.
and Max Borghi, and Oregon was held to 39 yards of total offense through the first two quarters, allowing the Cougars to take a 27-0 halftime lead. Herbert, a projected top NFL draft pick at the time, used his arm and legs to cut into Oregon’s deficit in the third quarter and early in the fourth, scoring 20 unanswered points. At a time when it looked like the Ducks might spoil WSU’s historic day, Minshew led WSU’s offense on a decisive eight-play, 75-yard drive, locating Dezmon Patmon on a classic Air Raid pattern, Y-Cross, for a 22-yard touchdown that would seal the Cougars’ 34-20 win.
“Dezmon Patmon, party on!” Tim Brando belted from the Fox broadcast booth. Seconds after the clock ticked to zero, thousands of fans swarmed onto the field – many wearing stick-on Minshew mustaches – to celebrate the occasion: a top-15 win, a fourth consecutive victory over Oregon and a result that improved WSU’s record to 6-1, sending the Cougars to the top of the Pac-12 North. An Apple Cup loss kept WSU from the Pac-12 championship game, but the Cougars still finished Minshew’s only season at the school with a victory in the Alamo Bowl and a school-record 11 wins.
Theo Lawson, WSU beat writer from 2017-2021 .