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WSU caps off incredibly special season with Sun Bowl win

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The Cougars took you on a ride this season, and what a ride it was.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Just 60 minutes into the season, I was ready for it to be over. When Washington State lost to Portland State, a feeling of dread came with it for me. Not this again. Not another slog to three or four wins.

Maybe that colored how I viewed the beginning of the season. I sat in the rain at Rutgers and didn't really appreciate the late game-winning drive. The same goes for the close win against Wyoming and close loss to Cal -- there were good signs in each, overshadowed by what seemed like disappointing performances. It felt like the season was going to drag on, another frustrating year in what's been a frustrating decade.

Mike Leach and Washington State flipped the script. The Cougars quickly made the beginning of the season a distant memory, all but erasing a loss to Portland State and replacing it with feel-good wins and a revenge tour that came out of nowhere. Most of us thought 6-6 would be about right for this team before the season, and were almost inconsolable after dropping the opener. Yet here we are, walking out of El Paso with a 20-14 Sun Bowl win to cap a 9-4 season.

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This team and this season were special, and as the last few seconds of the Sun Bowl ticked off, I didn't want it to end. In the span of about four months, the Cougars changed everything without really changing anything about who they are. It was, simply, unbelievable to watch it all unfold.

We can tick off the impressive accomplishments from the season: Finally beating Oregon (on the road, no less); taking a very good Stanford team to the wire; beating a ranked UCLA team on the road; taking care of teams they should have; stepping up and proving it at just about every opportunity, and numerous comebacks. The 2015 season took years off all our lives, and it was all so worth it.

Which brings us to the Sun Bowl. As the season wore on, Washington State found a variety of different ways to win. For the most part, the offense drove the team. But quietly, as it grew into its own, the defense started making the plays, keeping Luke Falk and the offense in games while coming up with huge plays when it needed them most. The Sun Bowl was Alex Grinch's masterpiece.

Sure, Miami plodded along and slowly marched down the field on its first drive. And the Canes broke off a couple big plays, most notably a long run out of the wildcat that setup a score to cut the Cougars lead to six and put everyone on edge. But when the Cougar defense needed to stiffen up and make a play, it did.

It did it by popping the ball loose as Miami was in the red zone late in the game. It did again when Shalom Luani took advantage of a poor halfback pass, allowing the offense to run out the clock. When the Cougs needed a play in El Paso, the defense rose to the task.

And when you thought it was inevitable that Miami would come back and win it late -- perhaps seeing flashes of the New Mexico Bowl -- the Cougars said not today, not this season. Even in the last game of the season, Washington State checked off another box in its growth process by finishing a bowl game and not giving up the lead late.

That's part of what made this season so special. We watched Leach's team grow up, week after week, throughout the year. They could've rolled over after losing to Portland State, but they didn't. They could've mailed it in after a 2-2 start, but they didn't. We've seen Washington State teams suffer setbacks and let it snowball so many times, but not this season.

Every week, Washington State proved something. They proved they could go on the road and beat strong Pac-12 teams. They took care of teams they should beat. They did it with comebacks and incredible finishes. They did it with offense, defense and, yes, even special teams.

After the Cal game, I listed out a bunch of mistakes the Cougars had been making over and over. I didn't see much hope they could actually fix them, because at that point it felt like the special teams errors, poor execution, confusing play calling and mental errors had become habit. Washington State was 2-2 when it should've been 3-0, and it wasn't much fun to watch them play.

And then, over the next three months, Washington State put on a show. I've never been happier to be so completely wrong about a team. And I haven't been this sad to see a season end in a long time.

I'm unbelievably proud of this team and these players, and you should be too. Despite injuries, a couple bad losses, and plenty of on-field adversity, they kept their heads down, continued to improve, and started actually punishing opponents. I went from dreading Saturdays to looking forward to them.

Over the last month, I've thought a lot about this season, the job the coaching staff has done, and how special so many of these players are. Stepping back from the week-to-week grind of the season added much-needed perspective.

What we saw this season was a team buying into what the coaching staff has been selling. It takes time for a program to turn after a long run of down years and to change the mentality.

On September 5, Washington State hit a low point by losing to an FCS team. On December 26, the Cougars beat Miami in the Sun Bowl and finished the season 9-4, including 6-3 in conference games. What happened in between was special and something to remember and cherish.

* * *

In a few weeks, the Cougs will go back to work. They'll have to replace some key players and come together again, putting in the work this offseason to try and make another run next year. This time, though, everyone has bought in and is on the same page. They know how to win, and do so in a variety of different ways. They've taken on the play the next play, next man up, and do your job mantras to heart.

While it's incredibly hard to predict what a college football team will do from year to year, it's hard not to think the Cougars are very much on the right track. These players have been through the bad times and pushed through to find the good times. They're hungry, angry, and have the talent to do something about it.

The future is bright thanks to a coaching staff committed to building this program the right way, and a special group of players committed to leaving their mark at Washington State. Take a step back and appreciate what you saw this year. Smile. You saw something amazing over 13 games.

Be sad it's over, but be happy it happened and proud of the players who were a part of it. What a year. What a team.

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