Cougars feel right at home in El Paso snow, claim Sun Bowl victory

As the driving snow continued to fall in El Paso Saturday, it became clear the Washington State football team would need its defense to rise to the occasion in order to claim its first bowl victory in a dozen seasons. 

A fumble near the goal line and an interception in Maimi’s last two drives of the Sun Bowl sealed the 20-14 victory for the Cougars (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) over the Hurricanes (8-5, 5-3 ACC), in spite of the fact WSU didn’t score in the second half.

Trailing by six points with more than 8 minutes to play, The Hurricanes looked like they would take their first lead of the game as sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya marched them 74 yards down the field in eight plays. However, when the WSU defense piled up freshman running back Mark Walton on its own 4-yard line, Cougar senior linebacker Kache Palacio forced the ball loose and sophomore cornerback Marcellus Pippins recovered it to preserve the Cougars’ lead.

The WSU offense went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, which forced them to punt back to the Hurricanes. Hoping to capitalize on good field position and rolling momentum, Miami interim head coach Larry Scott dialed up a bit of trickery with a halfback pass, which quickly turned into disaster for the Hurricanes and a saving grace for the Cougars as the pass apparently slipped while coming out of sophomore running back Joe Yearby’s hand and was intercepted by junior safety Shalom Luani.

With less than 3 minutes remaining, Luani’s team-leading fourth interception of the season all but finished off the game for the Cougs.

Heading into halftime with a 20-7 lead, momentum heavily favored the Cougars as they scored 13 points in the last 6:13 of the second quarter, and the Hurricanes only score came at the 5:45 mark of the first quarter. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Luke Falk was the first half catalyst for the Cougs, going 16-27 for 176 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

But as first half rain turned into second half snow, the Cougar offense appeared to freeze over as well as the team couldn’t score and Falk went 13-26 for 119 yards in the closing two quarters. In total, Falk completed passes to 11 different receivers, but fell 31 yards short of Connor Halliday’s school record for single season passing yards (4,597).

Meanwhile, Miami’s balanced offensive attack appeared ready to thrive in the elements as the Hurricanes’ first drive of the fourth quarter spanned 65 yards in 33 seconds. Sophomore receiver Braxton Berrios took a pitch on a jet sweep and raced for 60 yards to the 5-yard-line to set up a Walton touchdown run to make the score 20-14 with 13:10 to play.

While the teams only combined to score seven points in the second half, the game looked as though it would be a track meet in the first quarter.

Because of the Louisville-Kentucky basketball game overlapping CBS’s coverage of the Sun Bowl, television audiences didn’t see the Cougars’ drive that led up to redshirt sophomore Jamal Morrow taking a short pass from Falk and cutting up the field 31 yards for a touchdown on the opening possession of the game.

Miami responded on the ensuing possession on a 15-play, 69-yard drive that took nearly 7 minutes off the clock and ended with a 4-yard touchdown catch by junior receiver Stacy Coley.

With the loss, the Hurricanes dropped their sixth consecutive bowl game and haven’t won one since a 21-20 victory over the Nevada Wolfpack in the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl.