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Washington State: from worst to first

By Charles Renning
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday October 24, 2002

It was just a season ago when Washington State came to Tucson with hardly any expectations.

Picked by the Pacific 10 Conference coaches to finish last in the league, WSU was just hoping not to finish in the conference cellar for the fourth-straight year. The Cougars had very few known players on offense, with the exception of their quarterback, and a defense that was questionable.

However, after putting up 28 unanswered points in only 13 offensive plays to start the game on the road against the Wildcats, the Cougars cruised to a 48-21 victory.

For Arizona, it was an embarrassing loss. For Washington State, it was the beginning of its rise to national prominence. WSU finished the year 10-2 overall and beat Purdue in the Sun Bowl.

What began as a crushing win last year in Tucson has continued this season.

The Cougars (6-1, 3-0) are currently ranked No. 9 and have an even higher ranking in the all-important Bowl Championship Series standings. Washington State entered the year as the Pac-10 coaches' pick for conference champions and have a quarterback that is one of the top Heisman Trophy candidates on the West Coast.

The Cougars are currently on a four-game winning streak, with their only loss coming to No. 4 Ohio State in Columbus and are considered by many to be the best team in the Pac-10.

"We have to be ready to go because this is a really good team," head coach John Mackovic said. "Their only loss is to Ohio State, and that game was really a close game. It definitely was not a one-sided loss."

The Wildcats will have enough to worry about with all of the problems that the Cougars can create for them, but one could bet that most of their attention will be on stopping senior quarterback Jason Gesser.

"Gesser is the guy that makes Washington State's offense go," Mackovic said.

"It will be a real big task (to stop Gesser) this week," junior linebacker Joe Siofele said. "Gesser is such a great athlete. He has a good arm and he can scramble. We are going to have to keep him contained if we want to win this ball game."

Gesser has the second-highest pass efficiency rating of all Pac-10 quarterbacks and has thrown for over 270 yards a game, including 16 touchdowns and only five interceptions.

This season isn't the only year that Gesser has seen great success. He currently holds the Washington State record for most wins as a starting quarterback, 20, and consecutive games with a touchdown pass, 19.

Before the season is over, don't be surprised to see the Honolulu native's name on several other Cougar records. He is only 140 yards away from becoming the Washington State career leader in total offense and 503 passing yards away from being the school's leading passer of all time. If Gesser is able to stay healthy, he should obtain both records and pass such names as Jack Thompson, Ryan Leaf and Drew Bledsoe in the process.

Besides his own personal play, there are numerous other reasons for the Heisman talk surrounding Gesser.

Washington State has one of the bigger and better offensive lines in the conference.

They lead the Pac-10 with only 10 sacks allowed in seven games. They are also in the top five in rushing offense, averaging over 125 yards per game.

Probably the biggest surprise for the Cougars this year has been the play of transfer receiver Devard Darling.

Darling came to WSU this past summer after leaving Florida State.

His brother Devaughn Darling collapsed and died during an off-season workout in Tallahassee, Fla., in February 2001. After that, Devard looked to transfer to another school, but many schools, including Arizona, turned him away as a football player.

Devard has found a new home in Pullman, Wash., and is the Cougars' leading receiver through the team's first seven games. He has 34 catches for 438 yards and 7 scores.

It also helps Devard having the 6-foot-6 inch senior Mike Bush, who has caught a pass in every game he has played in, as the team's other receiver. Bush is also one of the Cougars' best basketball players.

In last year's game against the Wildcats, Bush had seven grabs for 110 yards and a touchdown.

But the biggest surprise for WSU is their improved defense from a season ago.

"They are more active this year, and their people up front make more plays, they harass the passer more, and they make more plays behind the line," Mackovic said. "They are on the move quite a bit up front, and they are playing very well. They match up just enough man-to-man when they're blitzing, but you don't get them one-on-one too much."

The key for the Washington State defense has been its ability to limit opponents' big plays. In the Cougars' first seven games they have only allowed eight runs for more than 20 yards.

"Great teams don't give up the big plays," said senior quarterback Jason Johnson. "They will make you earn it all the way down the field."


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