Central Michigan came to the desert southwest to play in one bowl game and ended up in another.
The Chippewas still found a way to end their five-game bowl losing streak.
Lew Nichols III ran for 130 yards and a touchdown, leading late replacement Central Michigan to a 24-21 victory over Washington State in the Sun Bowl on Friday.
When Boise State opted out of the Arizona Bowl because of COVID-19 issues, Central Michigan switched about 300 miles east from Tucson, Arizona, to the Texas border city of El Paso.
Miami skipped the Sun Bowl for COVID-19 reasons as well. Central Michigan stayed in Arizona before bussing to El Paso the day before the game.
The Chippewas (9-4) won their fifth consecutive game this season in their first bowl victory since beating Western Kentucky in the 2012 Little Caesars Bowl.
"They played their tails off," Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain said of a defense that held the Cougars to 53 yards before halftime to help the Chippewas to a 21-0 lead. "They might have been missing some guys, but let me tell you something else, we were missing guys. And you know what? We didn’t care. We just went out and played."
The Cougars (7-6) were without starting tackles Liam Ryan and Abe Lucas for coach Jake Dickert’s first game on the sideline since having the interim tagged removed. Running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh also opted out.
"Their edge rushers were the biggest ones that kind of gave us some issues," Dickert said. "They chose their spots. They were aggressive. They blitzed. They were high up the field and they used their speed on our two new tackles."
Washington State, which dropped to 8-9 all-time in bowls, rallied in the second half behind backup quarterback Victor Gabalis, scoring three times to make it close. Gabalis was 12 of 23 passing for 180 yards and two TDs.
After a 13-yard scoring toss to Lincoln Victor pulled the Cougars within three points with 3:13 remaining, they had another chance starting at their 14-yard line with 2:41 remaining. Central Michigan stopped Joey Hobert a yard short on a catch on fourth-and-5.
Marshall Meeder kicked three field goals for Central Michigan, including a 52-yarder for a 6-0 lead and a 43-yarder for a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
Nichols, who entered the game leading the nation in rushing and finished the season with xx yards, scored the first touchdown on a 1-yard plunge for a 13-0 lead late in the first quarter.
"We came together as a team today," Nichols said. "We pounded up front and came up with the win."
Central Michigan: It was the first victory in a bowl against a Power Five opponent for the Mid-American Conference team. The Chippewas were seven-point underdogs.
Washington State: The Cougars were facing the 117th-ranked pass defense nationally with freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura averaging 250 yards per game coming in. But de Laura didn't play after halftime because of an undisclosed lower-body injury. He was under heavy pressure in the first half.
Gabalis wasn’t even listed as the backup on the Cougars’ depth chart. He had seen spot duty in a few games before giving the Cougars a chance to win late.
Central Michigan was playing in the Sun Bowl for the first time, while Washington State made its third appearance, losing for the first time. Washington State beat Purdue in 2001 and Miami in 2015.
Central Michigan: The Chippewas will return 10 starters on offense and eight on defense next season. They open on Sept. 3 at Oklahoma State.
Washington State: The Cougars will return eight starters on offense and eight on defense. They open the 2022 season on Sept. 3 at home against Idaho.