ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - When second-year Colorado State coach Jim McElwain got word his team was heading to the New Mexico Bowl, he gathered them in an auditorium to break the news. The ecstatic players broke out in cheers and began high-fiving each other.
For Washington State, word spread about the Cougars' bowl invite on social media long before school officials could make a formal announcement. Mike Leach, Washington State's second-year coach, said fans were just too excited and had been waiting a long time for some good news.
The matchup between Colorado State (7-6) and Washington State (6-6) in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday in Albuquerque will mark the first meeting between the teams and comes as both are in the midst of turning around their long-struggling programs. The Rams haven't been to a bowl game since 2008 and the Cougars haven't seen the postseason in a decade. The bowl matchup, both coaches said, is a sign that things are changing.
''One of the accomplishments you want early is to get in a bowl game and be part of that club,'' McElwain told reporters at a news conference in Albuquerque. ''There's a certain aura that comes with being a bowl team.''
McElwain, an offensive coordinator for Alabama during the Crimson Tide's BCS national championships in 2009 and 2011, said the bowl appearance was an important stepping stone at rebuilding the program because it will help with recruiting.
Leach said the Cougars are largely made up of freshmen and sophomores, but his seniors have been through ''rough dry times'' and haven't had the experience of being in a postseason game. ''They've never been in a bowl and (had) hoped they would,'' Leach said. ''Talking about it and actually doing it are two different things.''
Colorado State features running back Kapri Bibbs, who leads the nation with 28 rushing touchdowns and has run for 1,572 yards, and quarterback Garrett Grayson, who ranks among the country's top 20 in passing yards (3,327). The Rams are the only team in the nation to boast a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,500-yard runner. In four games this season, the Rams' offense racked up 50 or more points - a school record.
Meanwhile, the Cougars will have Leach's signature spread offense anchored by junior quarterback Connor Halliday. He ranks fourth nationally in passing yards (4,187) and is tied for 13th with 28 touchdown passes. That offense nearly upset Auburn in the Cougars' first game of the year in a heartbreaking 31-24 loss. Auburn is playing in the BSC title game.
''We should have won that game,'' Leach said.
Despite the 6-6 season, Leach said he was proud of the team, especially after reaching a bowl game following a schedule that USA Today called the toughest in the country. Four of Washington State's opponents appear in the top 16 of the latest BSC standings.
Since this will be the first meeting between the two teams, both coaches admit they know very little about each other except to expect some high-powered offense. McElwain said his defense will have to be prepared.
''I know they throw the heck out of it,'' McElwain said. ''I know (Leach) isn't afraid to throw it and he'll probably throw it coming off the bus.''
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras.