by Tony C. Duarte

Mike Price's job just got a little more difficult -- sort of. Price is the head football coach at Washington State University and, as such, is responsible for bringing athletic respectability back to that institution -- at least as it relates to success on a football field. Of course, he is indirectly responsible for that expectation of success, seeing as he is the man behind the curtain in the Cougars' recent success, including their 1997 trip to the Rose Bowl -- their first such feat in 67 years and a culminating event allowing many devoutly loyal Cougar fans and well-wishers the opportunity to live out their lives peaceably once it was achieved.

But that was then and this is now. Or, as they say brusquely in the world of collegiate athletics -- show me the money and a non-padded resume.

And now, in 2001, after three years -- one of humility, one of futility and one of emotional brutality -- of non-bowl-football, Price has the Cougars back to a bowl game, the Sun Bowl to be exact, against the Purdue Boilermakers of the conference calling itself the Big Ten (even though it has 11 members -- collegiate stubbornness at its finest).

What makes this bowl difficult for Price and the Cougs is the simple fact that they get little respect nationally. The Cougars went 9-2 this year, with both losses coming in Pac-10 conference play -- the toughest conference in the country -- and they yet were relegated to also-ran status when bowl game invitations were being handed out. The Cougars are ranked No. 12 in the final BCS rankings, but are the lowest-ranked two-loss team from a major conference. As a team, the Cougs are generally healthy, losing only a part-time starting defensive tackle (Tomasi Kongaika), backup running back (Allen Thompson) and special teams player (Hamza Abdullah).

They are playing a team that went 6-5, losing four of its last five games as well as the quarterback who started in nine of those games (when he transferred out this month). Then, last week, starting defensive tackle Matt Mitrione, an all-conference pick for Purdue, quit the team to heal a stress fracture and prepare for the NFL draft. Las Vegas oddsmakers have installed the Cougs as nine-point favorites. Publicly, all the nice, kind good-sportsmanship words are being properly and politely bandied about, but privately, words like "blowout" somehow find their ways into well-meaning vocabularies. Enter the "difficult" part.

"We weren't planning on double-teaming him or anything, but he was a good player," says Price of Mitrione, the Boilermakers' most recent loss. "Losing him is not a good thing for them."

One of the reasons optimism is running rampant on Stadium Way is that, for the first time since early October, the Cougars will be entering a football game with no significant injuries -- and the last time that happened, they were up 31-0 on Oregon State. Quarterback Jason Gesser, second in Pac-10 passing efficiency and the ringleader of WSU's conference-leading passing attack, has had a month to recuperate from being tossed around like a rag doll for most of the month of November. Leading rusher David Minnich has had a month to rehab the knee he injured back in October. Pac-10-leading wide receiver Nakoa McElrath (who will not start as discipline for flapping his gums and criticizing the playcalling after last month's Apple Cup) has had a month to practice his route-running and public relations skills. Meanwhile, receiver Mike Bush has been keeping in shape by playing with the former employer of his skills, the Cougar hoop team.

Defensively, free safety Lamont Thompson was named an Associated Press All-American, the first Cougar AP All-American first-teamer since Mead's Jason Hanson back in 1991. Thompson is also the Pac-10's career interception leader. Raonall Smith and James Price head a linebacking corps that was seriously depleted much of the season. Tackle Rien Long and sackmaster ends Isaac Brown and D. D. Acholonu form part of a defensive line that was partially responsible for the Cougs having the fourth-best defense in the Pac-10. Either Acholonu or Brown will start in place of Fred Shavies, who is also being disciplined for a pre-Apple Cup on-field altercation with some Washington linemen.

Lining up on the black-and-gold side of the ball on New Year's Eve will be a true freshman quarterback starting his third game -- Kyle Orton. Redshirt freshman Brandon Hance had started the first nine games of the season for the Boilermakers before being sacked (by the coaches, not defensive linemen) in the middle of the ninth game against Michigan State. Orton then led the team on to victory. Hance was reportedly unhappy with non-football-related issues at Purdue, and he has decided to transfer and will not play in the Sun Bowl. That leaves Orton and the Boilermakers just one injury away from playing a senior walk-on behind an offensive line that gave up 37 sacks this season.

Fortunately for head coach Joe Tiller, who was an assistant under Price in his first year at WSU, Orton is no stranger to throwing the ball, having done it 114 times in the last two games against Indiana and Notre Dame, both losses. Orton threw the ball to an impressive corps of receivers, including Taylor Stubblefield (the team's leading receiver as a redshirt freshman), senior Tim Stratton (winner of the 2000 Mackey Award for nation's best tight end), sophomore John Standeford (the nation's leading freshman receiver last year) and junior Seth Morales (a clutch third-down receiver). Tiller's offense is a short-yardage, possession-style passing game, which should allow Orton quick releases of the ball before the rush can get to him.

"Their offense reminds us a lot of us," says Price of his colleague's offense. "They have that one-back set, and they do some of the things we do and some of the things that Oregon State did as well."

Defensively for the Boilermakers, ends Akin Ayodele and Shaun Phillips will keep Cougar offensive linemen on their toes. Ayodele is the squad's sack and tackle-for-loss leader as well as the MVP, while Phillips contributed six sacks. Losing Mitrione means Purdue will need his replacement Brandon Johnson -- a converted offensive guard -- to step up. Free safety Stuart Schweigert is an All-Big Ten conference player who leads the team in interceptions as a sophomore; the team as a whole is eighth in the country in turnover margin (WSU is 10th).

"Their defense reminds me of UCLA -- they are a lot like UCLA with their quickness," says Price.

The clearest advantage for Purdue is in the kicking game where punter/placekicker Travis Dorsch resides. Dorsch, from Bozeman, is this year's winner of the Ray Guy Award for the country's best punter, with a 48.4-yard average (fourth-best in NCAA history) and also is 20-for-25 in field goals this year, with four out of the five misses coming from 50 yards and out.

For Mike Price, the Cougs are finally back in a bowl game, and this time they're expected to have no New Year's Day hangover. It's a win-win. At least that's what Price and the Cougs are hoping.

The Sun Bowl, with the Cougs and the Boilermakers, will be broadcast on KREM-2 at noon on Monday, December 31.

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