January 1, 1998 - Washington State vs. Michigan - Unlike the previous Rose Bowls I had attended, this game the closest to having a 50-50 split of fans of both teams as both schools had good reasons for wanting to see this one. Michigan was 11-0 and ranked #1 in both polls. Washington State was 10-1, ranked #8, and they hadn't played in the Rose Bowl since 1931. This game was also the last one played under the Pac-10 vs. Big 10 contract. Starting in 1999, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) would take over. This was the last Rose Bowl without a "presenting" sponsor (an ABC requirement). The last time, you would be guaranteed that the Rose Bowl would be played on January 1 or 2.
Michigan's team was known for a stingy defense led by Heisman trophy winner Charles Woodson, the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy in the two-platoon era of college football. Woodson also ran back kicks and sometimes lined up on offense. Michigan's offense was steady, but not spectacular, and quarterbacked by Brian Griese.
Washington State had a high-scoring offense, averaging over 40 points a game. Mr. Charm himself, Ryan Leaf, was the Cougars quarterback and pro scouts were drooling over him and looking at him as the second coming of Drew Bledsoe. Michael Black was Wazzu's big ground threat and he ran for over 1,000 yards.
While Wisconsin and Northwestern, who made recent trips to Pasadena for the first time in decades, were embraced by the media as Cinderella stories and the subject of numerous stories about their loyal fans finally being rewarded, there was much less of that for Washington State. Wisconsin had the advantage of the sheer number of its fans and Northwestern showed that the mainstream media was controlled, not by liberals or conservatives, but by people who lived in Evanston, Illinois for four years. Washington State's most prominent alum in the media was ABC's Keith Jackson, who was his usual professional self in working games involving the Cougars. Washington State's cause was hurt by the fact that they played in a very out of the way place, in a small stadium, and weren't #1. While Leaf would go on to become one of the NFL's least amiable players, he wasn't quite that bad in college. Just sort of bad.
Michigan, on the other hand, was #1. And despite Michigan's success over the years, they hadn't won a national championship since 1948. And #2 Nebraska was going to play #3 Tennessee (with Peyton Manning, who finished behind Woodson in the Heisman voting) in the Orange Bowl the next day. And that was going to be Tom Osborne's last game as Nebraska coach. There was going to be a debate about who was #1 in college football! People liked that! And I contend that they still do.
I showed up at the game with a friend who lived nearby. I wore a WSU sweatshirt while she wore a Michigan sweatshirt. Our hope was to prowl through the tailgaters and see if we could score free food from both sides. Or possibly be interviewed by an unsuspecting reporter and pass ourselves off as a bickering couple whose loyalties were divided. There was also the hope that splitting allegiances would keep either of us from receiving verbal and/or physical abuse from fans of either team. Turns out, that none of those events transpired and we just made it to our seats peacefully. Michigan fans are, for the most part, a pretty mellow bunch, although they turned out in large numbers and all sang "The Victors" with great volume. Washington State's fans were definitely happy to be in Pasadena. If you figure that half of the crowd (about 50,000) were Washington State fans, that meant there were more Cougars fan at the game than would show up in Pullman, where Martin Stadium seated about 35,000 people. I got tickets through my friend's connection with the Pasadena City Council. They cost $75, but some scalpers were getting $400 and even one ticket went for $1000 reportedly.
Leaf got Washington State on the board first with a 15-yard TD pass to Kevin McKenzie. The Cougars were poised to go up 14-0 in the second half when Woodson picked off a pass by Leaf in the end zone. A few plays later, Griese threw a 53 yard TD pass to Tai Streets to tie the game at 7-7, which was the halftime score.
Washington State scored in the third quarter to take a 13-7 lead (the extra point was blocked), but the Cougars offense would stall after that. Black had gone out of the game with a calf injury and would only make a brief an ineffective return. Michigan couldn't run the ball either, but Griese made two big plays to put Michigan ahead.
One was a 58-yard TD pass to Streets in the third quarter to put Michigan up 14-13 and another was a 23-yard TD pass to Jerame Tuman and the Wolverines led 21-13.
The Cougars got a field goal to pull within 21-16 with about seven minutes left, but couldn't move the ball on any of its remaining drives until the very end. The Cougars had the ball on their own 7 with 48 seconds and no timeouts left and managed to get all the way to the Michigan 26 with two seconds left. The clock was stopped for a first down and Leaf decided to try to spike the ball to set up a play, but couldn't get it done in time and the game was over.
Griese was named the MVP of the game throwing for 251 yards on 18 of 30 attempts. Brian's father, Bob, who was working with Jackson in the booth for ABC, had led Purdue to a Rose Bowl win 31 years earlier, although he didn't win the MVP award, which went to Boilermaker defensive back John Charles.
Nebraska would rout Tennessee in the Orange Bowl and the AP voters gave the national title to Michigan, while the coaches' poll picked Nebraska. But the BCS was on its way the next year. And never more would anyone ever have any doubt about which team was #1. No. It would never happen again.
Coming up next: The installment you've been looking forward to, the last one! The BCS comes to Pasadena, but the Rose Bowl survives.