Sitting there in Martin Stadium three seasons ago, watching USC dismantle a Washington State team that had played in a bowl game the prior season, I never expected to see the Cougs get much better than what I saw that night, at least, in the foreseeable future.
On that rainy, depressing afternoon, former WSU quarterback Connor Halliday had his leg broken, former USC star receiver and return-man, and now Philadelphia Eagle, Nelson Agholor literally did whatever he wanted, and the unranked Trojans ran away to a 44-17 win over what would be a 3-9 Cougar team.
Something crucial happened that day regarding WSU football. It was the turning point. Yes, WSU didn’t finish the year out well, but it was the last time the program would be in the dumps of Division I football for a while.
Contributing largely to the program’s success was some impressive play from a young walk-on — a freshman quarterback named Luke Falk.
Halliday held the majority of WSU passing records, and the hype surrounding the standout quarterback was evident in the community.
This air left Pullman when Halliday went down. I, along with every fan on the Palouse, could never have predicted that this new guy would come in and put Halliday’s success to shame.
Since that November day, the football program under Mike Leach has improved tenfold, and our neighboring Cougars are on the brink of a national powerhouse label, now having nearly reached their first top-10 AP ranking since 2003 in the 11th spot.
Last year, early into the football season, shifting tides in the Pac-12 conference were visible, with Washington schools reestablishing a presence in the conference, taking away the prominence of the formerly dominant Oregon schools. The University of Washington was a top-five team at that point, and Washington State had only barely cracked the top-25, but that was still noteworthy for a previously unranked program.
Now, both Washington schools are top ranked teams in the country, and even I, a huge advocate for northwest athletics, am completely surprised.
The only indication of major Coug success I had ever known were old Rose Bowl sweatshirts from 14 years ago that I had seen locals wearing. Wazzu was hit-and-miss in the last two seasons, putting together nine and eight win campaigns, respectively, but the success of those years are overshadowed by the few losses.
Of course, 9-4 and 8-5 seasons are nothing to be ashamed of, but national relevance is hard to come by when defeated by Eastern Washington, Boise State and consistent handlings by Washington in the Apple Cup.
This season has a feel to it. There’s something off about this Wazzu team. The common saying, “they Couged it,” basically related to dire mistakes made by the team, just might not be too prevalent in 2017.
Take, for example, the attention WSU is already getting. Every year, the 24-karat gold national championship trophy makes a cross-country trip, only stopping at large-scale public events and marquee football matchups. Last weekend, the trophy was at the USC vs. WSU contest, a sign in itself as to how far the program has come.
The trophy could have been sent anywhere — Auburn vs. Mississippi St., Ole Miss vs. Alabama or, a huge matchup in Clemson vs. Virginia Tech. But all played second fiddle to the Cougars this weekend.
Ray Mallouk, the trophy’s manager, said the decision would be made based on which game had the most national championship implications, and it’s amazing that Washington State is winning these substantial games.
Maybe I’m a little too involved and it is probable the Cougs won’t end up doing much this season. But optimism is good and it is possible that this could be the season Washington State ends up winning the Pac-12, which would be incredible, given that the conference champions are likely to be selected for the College Football Playoff.
Either way, the win over USC on Friday was impressive to say the least and I’ll remember it forever. USC was a big preseason national championship favorite, with a Heisman hopeful at the helm in Sam Darnold. But what if Wazzu could embody those labels?
Technically, the Cougs could be in the running for a playoff bid and Falk, who ironically played his biggest game of his career against the same team he got his start against, is looking like a Heisman quarterback.
Colton Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @coltonclark95