PULLMAN, Wash. — WSU’s season certainly had some twists and turns. This Cougar team proved their resiliency through it all though.
It has been a season to remember for the Cougs and it wasn’t just on the field.
Let’s go back through all that has transpired so far in 2021 for the team.
AUGUST 18: INSLEE ANNOUNCES VACCINE MANDATE
The first big headline of the Cougs’ season came, from of all people, Washington’s governor.
Nick Rolovich had announced in July that he was unvaccinated, and on August 18, Jay Inslee announced that all state employees had to get vaccinated or lose their jobs by October 18. Rolovich was a state employee as he was employed by WSU.
The next day at Rolovich’s media availability he began using the line that became his catchphrase for the two-month long saga:
“I’m just going to follow the mandate,” said Rolovich when asked what he would do.
SEPTEMBER 4: WSU LOSES TO UTAH STATE
As issues off the field swirled, there was also plenty of them on it. WSU fell to Utah State at home in the Cougs first game of the season, 26-23.
WSU would end up losing three out of their first four games.
SEPTEMBER 24: BRANDON GRAY SHOT
The night before the final WSU loss of that stretch against Utah, WSU wide receiver Brandon Gray was at a house party in Pullman and was shot. He had to be life flighted to Spokane and was initially put in the ICU.
“When you see something in the news like that, you never expect it to be someone you know,” said Ron Stone Jr. after the Utah game.
Gray has since been released from the hospital but is not back practicing with the team yet.
OCTOBER 2: WSU BEATS CAL
This day marked a turning point on the field for the Cougs as they beat Cal in Berkeley 21-6, and Calvin Jackson Jr. had what the Pac-12 named as their top play of the year.
“The reaction was just crazy. I caught it, and they ruled it a touchdown. When I came to the sideline, I got beat up the whole way to the bench,” said Jackson of the catch after the game.
It marked the first of three straight wins for the Cougs. However, off the field, the tensions only rose.
OCTOBER 9: JUNE JONES COMES FORWARD
In the morning before WSU’s game against Oregon State, USA Today published a story with Rolovich’s former head coach and mentor June Jones going on the record saying that Rolovich had filed for a religious exemption to not get vaccinated. Rolovich had previously refused to reveal his status.
“I’m not terribly happy with the way it happened. I hope there’s no player that I coach that has to wake up and feel the way I felt today,” said Rolovich of the situation.
OCTOBER 16: ROLO’S LAST GAME
A week later, Rolovich coached what would be his final game for the Cougs, although he was unsure of it at the time. WSU wrapped up a 34-31 win over Stanford in the final seconds and Rolovich’s players gave him a Gatorade bath.
“I don’t think this is in my hands. I’ve been settled for a long time on it. I believe it’s going to work out in the right way,” said Nick Rolovich of his vaccination situation.
OCTOBER 18: ROLOVICH FIRED, DICKERT ELEVATED
Two days later, it didn’t work out the way Rolovich wanted it to. Pat Chun announced that he was firing his head coach with cause for not getting vaccinated.
“To be at this juncture today is unacceptable on so many levels and is antithetical to the WSU experience our student-athletes so richly deserve,” said Pat Chun.
In the same announcement, Chun named Jake Dickert WSU’s interim head coach. The next day Dickert had his introductory press conference.
“I think this is a great day for perspective,” said Dickert. “I hope everyone can take a step back and look at the big picture and focus on the people who are greatly changed and that’s our student-athletes.”
OCTOBER 30: DICKERT GETS FIRST WIN AS HEAD COACH
Dickert got his first win as a head coach on October 30 as the Cougs demolished Arizona State 34-21.
“It’s really surreal. It’s something you dream about. You want. You work so hard for,” said Dickert postgame.
NOVEMBER 19: COUGS GET BOWL ELIGIBILE
The next benchmark for Dickert was getting the Cougs bowl eligible, which he did in another demolishing, this time against Arizona. WSU throttled the Wildcats 44-18 in the Cougs’ last home game of the season.
“They were really determined to show what they can do one last time on our home field but also to get us bowl eligible,” said Dickert after the win. “This team wants to keep playing together.”
NOVEMBER 26: COUGS WIN APPLE CUP
A week later, Dickert essentially locked up WSU’s head coaching job with a win every Coug had longed for for eight years. The Cougs beat the Huskies 40-13 in the Apple Cup behind a 27-of-32 passing performance of Jayden de Laura and two touchdowns from Max Borghi.
Borghi also tied WSU’s all-time career touchdowns record with his second TD at 41 overall.
The defense had four interceptions including Spokane’s own Armani Marsh running one back for a pick six.
“We’ve been waiting for this one for a long time,” said Marsh. “There’s no other group of guys I’d rather do this with. I’m glad we just brought the Apple Cup home and looking forward to the rest of the season.”
NOVEMBER 27: DICKERT NAMED PERMANENT HEAD COACH
The next day Jake Dickert was hired as WSU’s permanent head coach much to the joy of his players.
DECEMBER 5: WSU TO THE SUN BOWL
On December 5th, WSU learned their post season fate as the Sun Bowl selected them to play Miami.
DECEMBER 13: BORGHI OPTS OUT
With bowl games though, also brings opt outs and on December 13 one of the greatest running backs in Wazzu history, Max Borghi, announced that he would not be playing in the Cougs’ bowl game.
A week later the program announced that Abe Lucas and Jaylen Watson would be joining him in opting out and preparing for the NFL Draft.
DECEMBER 26: A HURRICANE IS BREWING
On December 21, news leaked that the Hurricanes had Covid issues, but the Sun Bowl remained committed to them and was confident they would play in the game.
However, on December 26, just a few hours after WSU landed, the Canes had to pull out of the Sun Bowl because their Covid numbers rose again. It caught the bowl game off guard and sent them scrambling for an opponent.
“We earned this game and we feel like we deserve to play one. We’ve done all the time and we’re excited to play. We want to find a game to play,” said Ron Stone Jr.
DECEMBER 27: A NEW OPPONENT
Things looked bleak heading into the day, but then Boise State dropped out of the Arizona Bowl because of their own Covid outbreak. This freed up the Bronco’s Arizona Bowl opponent, Central Michigan.
After a long day of negotiations, the Chippewas agreed to play in the Sun Bowl. It was a no brainer as the Sun Bowl pays over $2 million more to the teams who play in it than the Arizona Bowl.
For the Cougs, it was just the latest in a season that has been anything but smooth.
"We never buckled our knees. We've been through a lot this season. It's not a foreign feeling. I think we're just excited and ready to play on Friday," said linebacker Justus Rogers.