Cougars, Hurricanes set for duel in Texas

Two football teams will meet in the West Texas town of El Paso Saturday in a shootout to claim the Sun Bowl.

The Washington State Cougars (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) have already put together their best season in the last 11 years, while the Miami Hurricanes (8-4, 5-3 ACC) will try to win nine games in a campaign for the fifth time in that same span.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Luke Falk, redshirt junior wide receiver Gabe Marks and redshirt senior left tackle Joe Dahl are all – albeit unofficially – expected to return from injury for Saturday’s matchup, which will return the Cougars to full strength, but the same can’t be said for the Hurricanes.

For most of the season, Miami has missed senior linebacker Raphael Kirby, who suffered a knee injury in a game against Virginia Tech, Oct. 17, and was the team’s leading tackler at the time. The defense sustained additional losses this week when interim head coach Larry Scott on Tuesday sent home junior safety Jamal Carter for breaking an undisclosed team rule and sophomore defensive tackle Courtel Jenkins for an academic-related suspension.

“I think guys understand when somebody goes down, it could have been anything, it could have been an injury, a guy could have gotten sick at the last minute, a guy has to step into those roles,” Scott said on the nature of Carter being sent home. “We’re playing in a situation where we need all of our defensive backs, and we’re down a DB so everyone is going to have to step their games up again.”

On the offensive side of the ball, the ‘Canes will play without redshirt sophomore lineman Sunny Odogwu, who tore the MCL of his right knee in Miami’s season finale at Pittsburgh. Odogwu started nine games at right tackle for Miami this season.

Hoping to take advantage of the depleted Hurricane’s defense, quarterback Falk will take back the reigns of the WSU offense and try to continue his record-setting 2015 campaign. Despite not playing in the Apple Cup, Falk is still currently fifth in the nation in passing yards (4,266) and fourth in touchdown passes (36).

Falk and the Pac-12’s leader in receptions (99) and touchdown grabs (14) Marks will be tasked with leading the Cougars against an athletic Miami defense.

“(Miami) will be aggressive, they blitz more than most teams we played,” Leach said in a press conference after practice Tuesday. “Not as much as Arizona State, but more than most. And they’re big, strong, athletic people, and they play kind of relatively basic defense.”

Sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya and sophomore running back Joseph Yearby lead the ‘Canes on offense. Kaaya has thrown for 3,019 yards this season and 15 touchdowns, and Yearby has racked up 1,212 total yards and eight touchdowns.

“They’ve got good speed, they’re big up front, (Kaaya) has done a real nice job directing their offense this year,” WSU Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch said after practice Tuesday. “He’s as talented as anybody in our conference, and we see some good ones, so it will be a major, major challenge for us and we obviously have to play extremely well to give ourselves a chance.”

On returning to Texas to play for the first time since leaving Texas Tech, Leach had as much sentiment as most Cougar fans would expect.

“I’ve been here a lot (since leaving), whether it’s recruiting or whatever, so it’s eerily similar to all the other times I’ve been in Texas,” Leach said after the Cougars’ practice on Tuesday. “But the Sun Bowl is awesome and it’s a bowl I’ve always wanted to go to.”

Kickoff for the Hyundai Sun Bowl is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday in Sun Bowl Stadium. CBS will broadcast the game.

Coaching transition at Miami

Miami fired fifth-year Head Coach Al Golden earlier this season after his Hurricanes lost to then No. 6 – now No. 1 – Clemson, 58-0. Golden’s team was 4-3 at the time he was fired, making him 32-25 during his tenure at Miami.

The Hurricanes announced Dec. 4 that former Georgia Bulldog’s Head Coach Mark Richt would assume the vacant coaching position at Miami starting next season. However, the Miami Herald reported Dec. 16 that Richt would not attend the Sun Bowl, likely so he would not distract the players’ attention, the reporter Susan Miller Dengan speculated.

Larry Scott, who will lead the Hurricanes Saturday, is 4-1 during his interim term as Miami’s head coach.

Cougars’ and Hurricanes’ recent bowl history

The Cougars haven’t won a bowl game since 2003 when they won the Holiday Bowl under Bill Doba, and the ‘Canes haven’t won one since the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl.

The Cougars won the 2001 Sun Bowl – the only time in program history – and Miami lost its only appearance in the Sun Bowl in 2010. Pac-12 schools have won the last two Sun Bowls (Arizona State and UCLA).