By RUSSELL CONTRERAS
ISLETA PUEBLO, N.M. — Colorado State hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2008. Washington State hasn’t been since 2003.
During those droughts, both programs struggled amid poor seasons and staff shake-ups that left players disappointed and alumni angry.
But now the two emerging programs are preparing to kick off the college bowl season and both believe a bowl victory could be the lift needed to finally get their teams back into recruiting battles. Colorado State (7-6) will meet Washington State (6-6) in the New Mexico Bowl today in Albuquerque in what is expected to be a showdown of two high-flying offenses.
“It’s definitely a dream come true,” said Colorado State offensive lineman Weston Richburg, a senior who has suffered through recent tough seasons. “You want to make the postseason every year in college. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that.”
During Washington State’s postseason drought, safety Deone Bucannon slowly became the NCAA’s active leader in solo tackles and joined Washington State’s all-time leaders in interceptions. But getting into a bowl game and getting a winning record was more important, he said. “Personally, individual stats don’t really mean anything to me,” Bucannon said. “Being here is an honor and a blessing.”
The match-up brings together two second-year coaches — Rams coach Jim McElwain and Cougars coach Mike Leach— working to turn around their teams’ fortunes with high-octane offenses.
Washington State opened 2013 with a heartbreaking 31-24 loss to Auburn, a team that is now in the BCS title game. And Colorado State played a respectable game against Alabama in a 31-6 loss.
“I think we got a lot out of going out and playing the University of Alabama,” said McElwain. “And came away feeling…yeah, we do belong.”
Leach said his team should have beaten Auburn and had to play four opponents who appear in the top 15 of the latest BSC standings. Despite that tough schedule, the Cougars were still able to make it to a bowl game and have a chance at a seven-win season for the first time since 2003.
But it’s not going to stop Leach from taking creative chances, something he usually does, even if it means taking advantage of Albuquerque’s high altitude.
“Yeah, the altitude,” Leach said. “We’ll try (kicking a field goal) from 75 yards or so.”
Here are five things to know when Colorado State and Washington State play in the New Mexico Bowl:
DOUBLE ATTACK: The Rams are the only team in the nation to boast a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,500-yard runner. Running back Kapri Bibbs leads the nation with 28 rushing touchdowns, and quarterback Garrett Grayson ranks among the country’s top 20 in yards passing (3,327). That one-two punch even impressed Leach, who said looking over footage of the pair led him to conclude the offense doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses.
SPREAD OFFENSE: Leach’s signature spread offense is led by junior quarterback Connor Halliday. He has tallied eight 300-yard games and four 4-touchdown games this season. He is passing up Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf in a number of categories, including career passing yards. He ranks fourth nationally in yards passing (4,189) and is tied for 13th with 28 touchdown passes.
KICKING IT: Cougars kicker Andrew Furney enters the New Mexico Bowl second in school history for career field goal percentage at .767. He kicked a 41-yard game winner against USC and his career total is 46 — third-most in school history. Leach said he will not have a problem asking Furney to kick a 50-yard-plus field goal if the game is on the line.
THE HANDS: Freshman Rams receiver Rashard Higgins has 64 receptions in his first 13 college games. That is the sixth-most in a single season in Colorado State history. He needs only six catches to become the third Rams player to have 70 or more receptions. He tied a school freshman record with 10 catches in a game against Boise State.
SNOW BOWL?: Parts of New Mexico are in for another round of winter weather this weekend and Albuquerque is facing a 20 percent chance of snow. Forecasters say the system could bring moderate snow to the southwest and south-central mountains overnight Friday and into Saturday. But snowstorms typically spare Albuquerque. Still, players may have to battle freezing temperatures and that may affect the high-flying offenses of both teams.