The Monday After: Looking back at WSU's win over Utah

The WSU Cougars locked up bowl eligibility with a dramatic victory over the Utah Utes. Let's take one more look back at the big picture items from the game before we move along to the Apple Cup.

Center Elliott Bosch has been at WSU since 2009, which means he's been there for a lot of things during what has been one of the more tumultuous periods in program history.

He was there when only a pair of inexplicable defensive touchdowns saved WSU from a winless season, despite the Cougs being outscored by more than 300 points and finishing the year with a 30-0 loss at Washington.

Deone Bucannon, Damante Horton and John Fullington weren't there in 2009, but they all were were there with Bosch in 2010 when the Cougs -- after a terrible start to the year that nearly included a loss to FCS Montana State -- pulled off an improbable upset of Oregon State before putting the fear of God into Jake Locker and the Huskies to finish the season, giving hope that better times might finally be ahead.

They were there in 2011 when those better times were sabotaged by a broken collarbone to the starting quarterback, and they were there when their coach -- who had invited all of them to join the program in the first place -- lost his job because of it.

They were there when Mike Leach was hired to much fanfare, excited -- just like everyone else -- at the possibilities that lie ahead.

Then they were there when things didn't go according to script in The Pirate's first season. (Remember, we were still doing the "Pirate" thing back then.) They were there for "basset hound faces" and "empty corpse quality." They also were there to witness the defection of nearly two dozen teammates (including the team's most accomplished player), who all decided WSU wasn't for them if Leach was the coach.

Bosch and Fullington were there when Leach ordered the entire offensive line to answer for itself after giving up six sacks against Utah. Boy, were they most definitely there for that one.

But then they were there for the biggest comeback in the history of the Apple Cup. And following that, they were there for the building of the foundation of a successful program. The hours in the weight room. The time spent at the training table. Midnight Maneuvers. Sacajawea Middle School. Practice. Video study. Fullington, in particular, had to fight through being demoted in spring practice.

It nearly paid off when they were thisclose against Auburn, only to see it through in an the improbable win over USC -- a portent of things to come as he and his teammates learned to "play the next play," picking themselves up off the mat time and time again in 2013.

And they are here for the payoff: A bowl bid, the program's first since 2003. Don't give me that 2006 nonsense; this team is going to a bowl.

How far away that must have seemed to Bosch and his teammates in 2009. Heck, it almost certainly seemed a million miles away after ASU drubbed the Cougs 46-7 last season, handing WSU its eighth consecutive loss, making the players in the 2009 class 9-38 in their careers.

But here they are, having been the ones to lead this program through the valley and into the light. It might not be the mountain top yet, but the program -- which still relies on young talent in so many spots -- is on that climb.

Many of you know that CougCenter launched in 2008, mere weeks before Paul Wulff's first game as head coach. While it's been tough at time for us to commit to covering a team that's been so awful for most of this site's existence, I won't pretend it even remotely compares to what these players have been through. I know what kinds of hours are required of a football player. I have a pretty good idea of what kind of commitment it's taken for these young men to make it where they are, if only from observing from afar. They absolutely deserve this, given everything these guys have been through in the four or five years.

The irony, of course, is that they probably aren't yet enjoying this much -- after all, they've got another game, and it wouldn't be very "play the next play" of them to dwell on their accomplishment, especially when there's more that can be done.

But I know that someday, Bosch and Bucannon and Horton and Fullington and all the members of this senior class will look back and know that they were a huge part of seeing WSU through to the other side. And they have my undying admiration because of it.

What we liked

Three weeks ago, the answer was simple: Nothing. And, again, the answer is ... nothing!

AS IN THE NOTHING THAT WAS CREATED BY ZERO SACKS!

I almost feel like we should throw a party for this. I'm not joking. It's not like the offensive line had any more struggles than any other unit over the past half decade, but theirs were so very ... obvious. And debilitating. When your quarterback doesn't even really have a chance to throw the ball, and you can't run for more than 2 or 3 yards a carry, it's just so darn demoralizing.

To see how far this unit has come, even within this year, is just so amazing. They had rough days against Auburn, USC and Stanford. But guess which Pac-12 team had the best pass rush, statistically? Utah. And the offensive line didn't just shut the Utes out -- Connor Halliday was barely touched. This wasn't chuck and duck, except for the rare times Utah sent seven; this was pitch-a-tent-and-scan-the-field stuff.

One of Halliday's issues earlier this year was getting happy feet in the pocket, surely a byproduct of failing to trust his protection. Bosch doesn't think it's a coincidence that as the protection has improved, so has Halliday: "Each game that he doesn't feel the pressure and doesn't get hit, he gets a little more comfortable back there." Yes, Halliday took four sacks against Arizona, but he wasn't getting buried on those -- he was holding the ball in the pocket and just couldn't find a receiver.

And then there's the little matter of this being the (roughly) one-year anniversary of the embarrassment in Salt Lake City that prompted this highly uncomfortable news conference. This performance was an excellent bit of narrative symmetry that only would have been made more perfect by Leach sending the entire unit to answer questions again.

"No sacks with as much as we throw the ball, that's good. From where we've come, that's a big deal," Bosch said. "We weren't trying to think about last year, but it was in the back of my mind at least, and we knew we owed them one. Yeah, to go out and have a performance like that -- we enjoyed it."

Even though Leach didn't do that, he made sure the line knew he noticed.

"Leach did mention it to us, that he was proud of us," Bosch said. "That's good to hear from the big man."

What needs to improve

Punting. Michael Bowlin got a chance to finish his career well despite his inconsistencies, and it was another rough day. So rough, that Mike Leach (or special teams coordinator Eric Russell) decided to throw Wes Concepcion back there for the third punt.

Concepcion's 42-yarder bounced into the end zone for a touchback, but at least it wasn't a 10-yarder straight out of bounds. At this point, that's a pretty significant improvement, and here's to hoping that the switch gives the Cougars a bit more out of the punting game as they search for the seventh win.

Who impressed?

Let's continue with the offensive line theme: I'm picking John Fullington.

I didn't watch Fullington closely enough on Saturday to know if he had a tremendously impressive individual performance or not. But here's what I do know: He wasn't called for any penalties. In fact, I honestly don't remember the last time Fullington actually committed a penalty. I think he might have had a hold against Auburn.

That's incredible for a guy who started as a true freshman because of his talent but had basically had become a punchline in many circles for all of the penalties he committed last year, the posterchild for Wulffian unfulfilled potential. And as we mentioned earlier, he spent the spring running with the twos, needing a strong fall camp to earn his way back into the starting lineup.

"He'll probably hate me for saying this, but he's definitely the most improved guy in our group," Bosch said. "He's always had the most potential of anyone and he's finally playing to that potential. I'm really proud of him."

Which player underwhelmed?

Gabe Marks. Zero catches against Arizona, two catches against Utah for three yards ... and a horrendously timed fourth quarter fumble that helped the Utes get within a touchdown late. I'm not sure how it is that Marks went from Connor Halliday's favorite target to virtually invisible -- I assume the emergence of Vince Mayle is part of it, but that certainly doesn't explain all of it.

Whatever funk he's in, WSU needs him to snap out of it. Teams are only going to roll more and more coverage to Mayle, and Marks must be prepared to take advantage of it.

The talent is in there. He just needs to be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to make too much happen, as he did on Saturday.

Up next!

Apple Cup.

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