EL PASO, Texas – Keep your fingers crossed. It’s almost time to play.
The Sun Bowl kicks off on Friday at 9 a.m. on the UTEP campus. The competition’s organizers and its participating programs – Washington state and central Michigan – can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel after a week filled with uncertainty over whether the playoff competition in the west of Texas would be played.
But no one will relax until the soccer ball leaves its tee. The resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it an unpredictable bowl season – five games have already been wiped out in the past two weeks.
Sun Bowl officials have avoided this fate so far, and it has required persistence and a bit of luck after Miami pulled out of the game on Sunday due to COVID-19.
CMU’s Arizona Bowl foe Boise State followed suit a day later. Dozens of phone calls were made and the Chippewas-Cougars tilt came together just in time – less than four days before the opening whistle.
“They have done a lot to give our players an opportunity to compete once again,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said at a press conference Thursday, congratulating the Sun Bowl Association. “If there’s anything I know, it’s that our squad in Washington state and Cougars across the country want to finish this season.
“When we heard our opponent’s announcement, I was so happy for our guys. It wasn’t about me or our coaches; it was for our players and our seniors to be once again on this ground together. These are times they will remember forever.
The Sun Bowl has an intriguing showdown between two teams that don’t know each other well. Cougs and Chips have never met before.
WSU (7-5) appears in its sixth consecutive bowl game – excluding the 2020 coronavirus-hit season. That streak began in 2015, when the Cougs dominated Miami in a winter Sun Bowl. Snow is not in the forecast for Friday, but rain is.
The Cougars “have survived adversity” this year, Dickert said. Former trainer Nick Rolovich and four assistants were sacked in mid-October for failing to comply with a state mandate on the COVID-19 vaccine.
This veteran-laden WSU team notched three wins under Dickert. His offense remained explosive and his defense made a significant turnaround from last season. The Cougs lost only a late result before advancing to the Pac-12 title game.
“Adversity in life can be your ally for growth if you allow it,” Dickert said. “It brought us closer together. This group made it possible and you can see it as we have done throughout this season. This week is no different.
“I tell our guys all the time that football is the best teacher in life. When these things are happening you have to be able to lock your knees and have a positive mindset, to keep moving forward and great results are happening, and that’s what happened this week.
After a tumultuous campaign, the Cougars find the extra month of training time and team building at the week’s bowling events rewarding. Sun Bowl Executive Director Bernie Olivas congratulated Dickert and WSU on their good humor.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more enthusiastic football team get off the plane, wanting to be here, wanting to play this football game,” he said.
WSU’s depth map will be limited to a few key places. Senior running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh ended their careers at Coug a game earlier. Borghi opted out of the playoffs to begin training for the NFL Draft while McIntosh did not make the trip for unspecified reasons.
Pro-tied right tackle Abraham Lucas will sit down, and left tackle Liam Ryan recently had end-of-season surgery.
WSU has moved a few pieces on its offensive line and third-string backer Nakia Watson, a transfer from Texan and Wisconsin, will start his career debut at fullback. The Cougars also need reinforcements at the cornerback position after NFL prospect CB Jaylen Watson opted out of the playoffs.
“I don’t foresee any lull from these guys playing,” Dickert said. “They are ready and we are excited about what they can do.
“Everyone knows we’re a bit understaffed so we’ve put our heads down and come up with the best possible plan for our guys. It’s about doing things they’re comfortable doing and playing fast.
CMU (8-4) of the Mid-American Conference also narrowly missed a divisional crown and a MAC Championship bid.
The Chippewas benefit from the services of the country’s best rusher in Lew Nichols III (1,710 yards), a reliable quarterback with pocket passes in Daniel Richardson and two of the best offensive tackles in the Group of Five.
“One of your biggest fears after four weeks off is tackling yourself,” Dickert said when asked about Nichols. “We have to make sure we do a good tackling job. “
In defense – a unit coordinated by former WSU assistant Robb Akey – the Chippewas’ ability to stop the race is formidable, but their secondary is questionable.
CMU trained in Tucson throughout the week and took part in Arizona Bowl activities before making the nearly five-hour trip to El Paso on Thursday.
“The logistics are crazy,” CMU third-year coach Jim McElwain said. “You don’t complain about it – you just do it. You figure out what’s best for your players and move forward, making it the best possible experience for your players.
The Chips face an uphill battle preparing for a last-minute Power Five opponent, but they’re happy to play in front of a CBS crowd, and they could get a nice Sun Bowl win as well.
“We’re playing a really good team with a bit of misfit toy country, and we’re going to have fun doing it,” McElwain said. “You talk about a Power Five program in the Pac-12 against a bunch of guys from central Michigan with one set of uniforms. It’s a huge challenge for us and yet, what a great opportunity. … We have a three hour chance to broadcast Central Michigan on national television.
Both teams had to hastily put the film together and set up impromptu study sessions with the players over the past three days.
It’s not enough time to come up with a game plan, so the Cougars and Chippewas “are basing themselves on the ground rules,” Dickert said.
“It’s one of those things that’s going to make that kind of fun too,” Akey added. “You just went out and trained a ball. “