Iowa and Washington State: curious couple angle for big football date
This has been a Dr. Seuss-like season in college football - everything just a bit crazy. Instead of ooblecks and wockets, though, Iowa's Hawkeyes and Washington State's Cougars are among the central characters.
Normally, the season can't end fast enough for them. But now both teams want to extend it one game beyond the regular season, ending with a rendezvous in the Rose Bowl.
Iowa (profiled in this space two weeks ago) shares the Big Ten Conference lead with Ohio State. Each has a 3-1 league mark. Seven teams are still mathematically in the race, but Iowa is the only one that is assured of going to the Rose Bowl if it wins all four remaining games. Upset by Minnesota last Saturday, the Hawkeyes will still be conference victors if they beat Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Michigan State.
Washington State, meanwhile, has stupefied Western fans by going 6-0-1, climbing to 12th in the latest UPI poll and slipping into the Pacific-10 Conference lead.
Some suspect the Cinderalla season may reach midnight this Saturday, when the Cougars meet third-ranked Southern California in Los Angeles. Over the years, Washington State has beaten the Trojans on only four of 43 occasions, and not since 1957. An upset could be the key to the school's first bowl berth in 50 years, although games against Oregon, California, and arch rival Washington, last year's Pac-10 Rose Bowl representative, follow.
To stay in the Rose Bowl race, Southern Cal must beat a team Trojan Coach John Robinson likens to Oklahoma because of its exceptional offensive speed. Despite coming off an emotional victory over Notre Dame, USC should be ready. ''If we lose, we'll be playing in a cold weather bowl,'' says Robinson, cringing at the thought.
To understand why Washington State has traditionally been such a nonentity in West Coast football, one may need a quickie geography lesson. The school is situated in Pullman, a town of 20,000 named after the famous railroad car industrialist, George M. Pullman. It is off the beaten path, cheek by jowl with Idaho in an agricultural belt. Spokane, the nearest major city, lies some 70 miles to the north.
As local legend jokingly tells it, Walla Walla, Wash., once had a choice between housing the state land-grant college or a prison, and chose the latter. Pullman, then, got the State College of Washington, which assumed its present name in 1959.
Anyone who knows anything about college recruiting realizes that a place like Pullman can be a hard sell. Athletes are more easily enticed to the golden coast or the Sunbelt campuses of Arizona and Arizona State.
Washington State lacks the glamour and crowds found at most other conference schools. Though enlarged to 40,000 seats just two years ago, Clarence D. Martin Stadium still has the league's smallest capacity. And not until this season, against UCLA, did WSU manage a sellout. ''You have to drive a long way to see our games,'' says Rod Commons, the school's besieged sports publicist.
Before this year, Washington State had had only one winning season (1972) since 1965 and very few good conference finishes. Even so, it has developed a reputation for playing exciting, wide-open football, with talented players in the so-called ''skill positions,'' namely in the backfield and on the flank.
The Cougars have been especially blessed in the quarterbacking department. In recent seasons, the position has been filled by Steve Grant (now with the Montreal Alouettes) and two players of Samoan ancestry, Jack Thompson (''the Throwin' Samoan'') and Samoa Samoa.
This year Clete Casper, a junior, and Ricky Turner, a sophomore, share the job, with Coach Jim Walden shuffling them in and out at whim. Casper is the consummate field general, the leader who makes no mental mistakes, while Turner is the flashy option QB with breakaway speed and a strong throwing arm.
Last Saturday, this pair helped WSU rack up 521 yards against an Arizona squad that hadn't allowed more than 300 yards a game this season. Opponents have traditionally had trouble coping with Washington State's multiple offense, which attacks equally well both inside and outside, as well as through the air. In addition, the Cougars have a defense brimming with much more confidence than usual, plus better depth than ever.
Admittedly, the schedule hasn't been too taxing. Montana State, Colorado, Pacific, and Oregon State have been relatively soft touches. But the Cougars have shown their mettle in beating both Arizona schools and tying UCLA.
And they're certainly not cocky, at least not according to the booster buttons inspired by the new Cougermania. ''Not Conceited, Just Undefeated,'' they read.