In no uncertain terms, Washington State's Cougars showed yesterday just why they had disdain for their opponents in the Weiser Lock Copper Bowl. They treated the University of Utah like the slugs they'd spent the last month insisting they were. They mopped up the field with the Utes' jerseys, and the Utes were still wearing them. They left little doubt just who was from the Pac-10 and who was from the WAC.
The problem for the Cougars was they did all the above in the first quarter.In the annals of bad timing, this was colossal. This was the football equivalent of firing all six of your bullets at once.
With three quarters still to play, the Utes weren't dead. They were just mad.
In much the way they resurrected their 1992 season with a bowl bid when it appeared all the doors had Weiser Locks on them, they resurrected their bowl game. Down 21-0 in the first 15 minutes? No problem. Forty-five minutes still remained - and the Cougars were already filing their fingernails.
The result was a shift in momentum not seen since, well, since the last time the '92 Utes made a u-turn. Maybe they did end the season with a so-so 6-6 record, and maybe they did lose to UTEP and New Mexico, Dredge I and Dredge II of the WAC, respectively; and maybe they even wound up losing last night's Copper Bowl by a heartbreaker of a 31-28 score. But as quarterback Frank Dolce shrugged and said as he exited Arizona Stadium, "we never gave up. That's what I'll remember about this team. We didn't give up during the season and we didn't give up tonight."
Washington State's players, while trying to figure out how to come out of the early stages of shock and celebrate a bowl victory at the same time, could attest to that. They'd never seen anything like this in the Pac-10 or any of their other travels this season. Who were these guys who could fall behind 21-zip and use that as a rallying point?
"You know, they surprised us," said Washington State flanker Calvin Schexnayder, who had four catches for 43 yards. "Just when we began to think that we were on a joy ride, that this thing was over, then they started to play."
"We started the game guessing and we guessed right every down," said Cougar defensive tackle Chad Eaton. "We went up 21 points just like that; and then we started slacking off. Not too much, but enough that they got 28 points on the board before we could get them stopped."
Actually, the Utes had more of a say in when and where they would again be stopped than their opponents. When Chris Yergensen looked up and pulled his 20-yard field goal try wide left in the latter stages of the fourth quarter, Washington State's defense did little more than look on as concerned bystanders.
The fact that Yergensen's kick was wide, and Aaron Price's 21-yard kick just two minutes previous was not, made all the difference as far as postgame moods were concerned. The contrast in the stadium was striking. Washington State's players and fans flooded the field. They accepted the championship trophy from Copper Bowl officials. Price - the son of WSU head coach Mike Price who might have been a Ute if his father had remained the coach at Weber State - re-enacted his kick. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe signed autographs and sidestepped agents and questions about his future. Split end Phillip Bobo, after catching seven passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns, held his Most Valuable Player trophy high.
Meanwhile, Utah's fans stayed in the stands as the Ute players walked to the locker room. Their heads were lowered. They talked in hushed tones. Head coach Ron McBride lamented the missing of a "dang chip shot."
It was another real-life example that winning is much more important than how you played the last three quarters.
The Utes lived with that after the game, and will have to live with it in the record book. They came to Tucson, they saw, they lost. They played in only their third bowl game in history, and were beaten for the first time.
But there's losing, and there's losing, and the Utes lost on this night only on the scoreboard. And at that, only by the grand total. Round-wise, Washington State won only the first round, 21-0. Utah won the next three rounds, 28-10.
Debates will continue through the offseason whether the Utes should have gone for the touchdown instead of the field goal with 3:19 to play and three quarters of solid momentum spurring them downfield; whether they should have taken a delay-of-game penalty on Yergensen's field goal that would have moved the ball back five yards and into the middle of the field - both more favorable circumstances; whether they should have tried to move into field goal range at the end of the first half instead of letting the clock run out; and whether they should have revved up their offense to start the game instead of to start the second quarter.
But no one will debate that the '92 Utes belonged in a bowl game. Least of all their opponents from Washington State. "I have to admit, when I first heard we were playing Utah I wondered why," said Bobo. "But then I saw their films and I got impressed; and then I saw this tonight, and I know that's a very, very good football team."