Forget the adage, “Nice guys finish last.” Coach Mike Price and his Washington State football team are proof to the contrary. The Cougars overcame a 20-17 halftime deficit to defeat Purdue 33-27 December 31 in the Sun Bowl at El Paso. The crowd of 47,812 included more than 5,000 diehard Cougar fans.
WSU surprised nearly everyone, except possibly the Cougar players themselves and their coaches, after the media picked WSU to finish in the Pac-10 cellar. The Sun Bowl win improved the Cougars’ record to 10-2. Only the 1929 and 1997 teams have fared as well since football became a fall pastime in Pullman in 1894.
To win, WSU had to withstand 107 plays on offense by Purdue, including 74 passing attempts. The Cougars shut out the Boilermakers in the second half until the dying minutes.
Cougar heroes were many. Cornerback Jason David had two interceptions. He returned the first 45 yards for a touchdown. Senior safety Lamont Thompson, a first team AP All-American, also had two interceptions to extend his career record to 22. He was voted Sun Bowl MVP. Quarterback Jason Gesser passed for 281 yards and a touchdown. He also scored on a one-yard run. Nakoa McElrath caught five passes, all in the second half, for 116 yards. His first catch broke Mike Levenseller’s school single season record of 67 in 1976. McElrath presented the ball to Levenseller, now WSU offensive coordinator. Linebacker Raonall Smith had 11 tackles, helped on a sack, and deflected a pass. Drew Dunning’s accurate toe accounted for 15 points, including field goals of 47, 34, 30, and 37 yards.
“It was a great season,” said Price. “For me it was one of the best experiences of my coaching career.”
Price concluded his 13th season at WSU by being named Pac-10 Coach of the Year by his peers. He was similarly honored after the 1997 season, the same year he was National Coach of the Year and directed the Cougars to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years.