Washington State football has played their share of non-conference games against major conference teams. Since 2010 alone, the Cougs have faced off with Wisconsin out of the Big Ten, Rutgers out of the Big Ten, Auburn out of the SEC and Oklahoma State out of the Big 12. All of those games, however, have one thing in common: None of them were played in Pullman.
Since their inception, Washington State has played plenty of these games on the road. Some of them were on neutral sites. WSU even got a couple of major teams to play “road” games in Seattle. Back in the 50’s they even apparently “hosted” Penn State in Tacoma for some reason. Heck, dating back to the ‘80’s, the Cougs couldn’t even get conference teams to make the trip to Pullman, hosting most of their home games in Spokane.
That streak ends on Saturday when Wisconsin makes the trip to Pullman. For the first time in 25 years, a Big Ten team is headed to Martin Stadium. It’s a game that fans have been waiting to see for a long time, in more ways than one. Not only will it end a quarter-century drought, it’s also a matchup that was previously delayed by nearly decade.
The two teams were originally set to meet in 2014 in Madison and 2015 in Pullman. That series was then pushed back to 2022 at Wisconsin and 2023 at WSU. It was a move that, understandably, wasn’t well received by Cougar fans. In fact, it was covered on this very website by Craig Powers.
It’s hard to get excited about a home game against Wisconsin 10 years down the road. Some of the players that will take part in that game are currently wrapping up the third grade, and possibly have never played a down of organized football. Additionally, 10 years just seems like a long time for Wisconsin to figure out a way to back out of the agreement. Ohio State already bought out a trip to Pullman recently, and the Badgers just blew off a series with the Cougars for neutral site games with LSU and Alabama.
So, with this game set to (finally) kickoff this weekend, we decided to look back at the only other times a major conference team has made the trek to the Palouse. And, yes, it’s a very short list.
1998 - Illinois at Washington State
The previous season was one that Washington State fans will remember forever. This season, however, was a different story. Following their Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl appearance in 1997, the Cougs had a plethora of major pieces to replace. The biggest was Heisman finalist and top-two NFL Draft pick Ryan Leaf. In his place, Steve Birnbaum took the helm as one of just two returning starters on the offensive side of the ball. Birnbaum would lead WSU to just three wins this season, but it started off with a bang against the Illini.
Birnbaum threw for a 12-yard touchdown pass and his running back Kevin Brown added 113 yards on the ground to lead WSU to the 20-13 victory. The 1998 Cougars would go on to a promising start, topping Boise State and Idaho in the following weeks. Unfortunately, the Cougs would go an imperfect 0-8 in conference play to finish the season 3-8. But, hey! At least they beat Illinois!
1947 - Michigan State (College) at Washington State (College)
Yes. 1947. That’s the only other time that a major conference team made the trip to the Palouse. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find a ton of information about this matchup other than the final score — a 21-7 Michigan State College Spartan win over the Washington State College Cougars at Rogers Field in Pullman.
I did, however, find an incredible program from the game that has been digitized by the WSU Library. You should really check it out here. It includes some classic cigarette advertisements, a welcome to Michigan State fans from WSC president William Compton who wants to reassure the Spartans that no matter the outcome “our guests from Michigan will return home with a knowledge of having been among friends,” photos of the WSU coaching staff including assistants Buck Bailey and Jack Mooberry and a roster that refers to the WSU players a “Cougar Gridders” (which is a term that needs to be resurrected immediately).
As you can see, Saturday’s game is another long overdue chapter in Cougar football history. After the offseason we’ve all had, it’s a game we need to savor. So, whether you’re in Pullman or on your couch, enjoy one of the biggest non-conference games in program history. You deserve it.
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