EL PASO, Texas – There is one thing fans have come to expect when the University of Miami comes to play in the Sun Bowl, snow. The 82nd edition of the Hyundai Sun Bowl saw the Washington State Cougars defeat the Hurricanes 20-14 on Friday in front of 41,180 fans that braved through a cold snowy day.
But it wasn’t the snow or even the Washington State high-powered offense that doomed Miami. On this day it would be turnovers and penalties, many of the untimely variety that sealed the fait for the team from South Florida. The Hurricanes finished with three turnovers and nine total penalties for 105 yards.
The Cougars (9-4) finish the season with their best record since 2003 and won their first bowl game since defeating Texas in the Holiday Bowl, also in 2003. Head coach Mike Leach, in his fourth season at Washington State, picked up his first bowl victory with the university.
“As a team I think we complement each other to play a little better. I thought the offense started pretty quick and defense started slow,” Leach said. “And I thought special teams was reasonably steady. This weather makes it challenging for everybody.
“The challenging part isn’t to make the play but instead it’s to be consistent when you are battling some of that. I thought all sides picked up for everybody. I thought defense at the end played well together and we were a tough group of guys.”
Miami (8-5), meanwhile, loses in a bowl game for the sixth time in a row, including the last three seasons. The last time the Hurricanes won a bowl game was in 2006 when they defeated Nevada in the MPC Computers Bowl.
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk, who was named the C.M. Hendricks Most Valuable Player, finished 29-of-53 for 295 passing yards and two touchdowns. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya also finished with over 200 yards passing after finishing 17-of-30 for 219 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Cougar defensive lineman Hercules Matta’afa was recognized as the Jimmy Rogers, Jr. Most Valuable Lineman, while his teammate and place kicker Eric Powell, was named the game’s John Folmer Most Valuable Special Teams Player.
Washington State marked all of its points in the first half and held a 20-7 halftime lead, which it took into the fourth quarter as no one scored in the third frame.
But after the Hurricanes finally broke through with a touchdown early in the fourth to cut the lead to 20-14, their comeback efforts were thwarted, not once, but twice in the final minutes of the game by those turnovers and penalties.
With 8:22 left in the game, Miami began its seventh drive of the second half at its own 22-yard line. The Hurricanes would start moving the ball down the field to try and take over the lead and after a 36-yard hookup between Kaaya and senior wide receiver Rashawn Scott, Miami found itself at the Cougar 5-yard line.
It seemed the Hurricanes had taken their first lead of the ball game with about five minutes left when Kaaya hit receiver Stacy Coley for a touchdown, but a block in the back penalty negated the score and put the ball back at the 11-yard line.
A couple of plays later Miami running back Mark Walton fumbled the ball inside the 5-yard line and saw Marcellus Pippins scoop it up for Washington State.
But the Hurricanes’ defense, as it had the entire second half, held strong and forced a Cougar punt from their own end zone. Miami would get one more try at a victory as it got the ball back at the Washington State 28-yard line with 3:13 left.
But on the very first play from scrimmage running back Joe Yearby attempted a half-back pass to a wide open receiver running down the field. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, the weather finally came into effect as the slippery ball came out of Yearby’s hand like a wounded duck and fell into the hands of Washington State safety Shalom Luani for the Hurricanes’ final turnover of the day.
The Cougars would run out the clock after picking up a couple of first downs, the final one on a Falk quarterback keeper.
“End of the day we didn’t make enough plays or the plays that we needed to make to win the game in the second half,” Miami interim head coach Larry Scott said. “But I am proud of the way this team fought and came back in the second half. The attitude of the team decided that they weren’t going to let the weather or anything like that be a distraction or change our focus or what we came here to do. I am proud of the way that we came back and fought. We just didn’t finish a couple plays that could have made a difference in the game.”
The game began by living up to its billing as a matchup between two high-powered offenses as each team scored a touchdown on its opening possession.
Washington State received the opening kickoff and proceeded to drive down the field from its own 25-yard line. After a two-yard loss on the first pass play of the game, Falk connected with wide receiver John Thompson for a 29-yard pass play that placed the ball in Miami territory.
Four plays later at the Miami 31-yard line, Falk flipped a short five-yard pass to running back Jamal Morrow who did the rest after scampering 25 yards into the end zone to mark the first points of the game.
The pass play capped off a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive for the Cougars as they led 7-0 just a couple of minutes into the game.
But the Hurricanes’ offense answered with a touchdown on its opening drive as well. Miami had a more methodical method to their matriculation down the field. It took the Hurricanes 15 plays and almost seven minutes to march 69 yards for the game-tying score.
Miami was aided by two fourth-down conversions along the way, the second coming on a fourth-and-goal from the four-yard line that resulted in a touchdown pass from Kaaya to Coley.
After the offenses highlighted the opening moments of the game, it would be defenses that would take center stage beginning with the first play of the second quarter.
After a Cougar punt, the Hurricanes would take the ball at their own 17-yard line and move down the field all the way to the Washington State 15-yard line. But during that first second-quarter play Kaaya threw a ball into the end zone that ricocheted up in the air and was grabbed by Cougar linebacker Peyton Pelluer for an interception.
The Hurricanes quickly got the ball back, however, after Washington State running back Gerard Wicks fumbled the ball three plays later. Miami defensive back Deon Bush recovered the ball at the Cougar 30 yard line.
The Hurricanes, however, could do nothing with the turnovers as they gave the ball back to the Cougars after going for it and failing on fourth-and-10.
Washington State, meanwhile, would score on its final three possessions of the half as a Falk to Gabe Marks 25-yard touchdown pass was sandwiched in between two Powell field goals, the last one coming as time expired in the first half as the Cougars led 20-7 at the break.
While the first half saw only three total punts, the second saw 10 as the game became a defensive battle.
The only scoring drive took two plays and 33 seconds as Miami scored on a Walton 5-yard touchdown run one play after sophomore wide receiver Braxton Berrios scrambled 60 yards to set the Hurricanes in the red zone. It was the longest run of the season for Miami.
Unfortunately, it would be as close as the Hurricanes would get as they fell for the second time in five years on a snowy day in El Paso.
“They are upset and hurt because they fought,” Scott said. “One thing they did not do was give in or give up or quit. They fought to the bitter end.
“When you fight and you keep believing things are going to work out, a loss hurts. I told them they had nothing to be ashamed of. They needed to hold their heads high. I told them from the very beginning that there is a lesson in everything and another decision they are going to have to make from this.”