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ROSE BOWL: NO. 1 MICHIGAN 21, NO. 8 WASHINGTON STATE
16 | Throne to Wolves

Michigan Beats Washington State, Awaits Vote for National Title

Rose Bowl: Griese is player of the game with three touchdown passes, and 21-16 decision completes 12-0 season.

January 02, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hail to the victors valiant, hail to Brian Griese, Tai Streets, Charles Woodson and Lloyd Carr.

National championship?

"Hail, Yes!" one preprinted Detroit newspaper headline proclaimed.

Doing what Bo Schembechler, Jim Harbaugh, Dan Dierdorf, Desmond Howard before them could not, the Michigan Wolverines on Thursday almost certainly (as much as you can be certain about anything in the poll business), positively (uh, barring unforeseen developments) captured their first national title (OK, at least a share--honest!) in 49 seasons Thursday with a 21-16 victory over Washington State before a sun-soaked crowd of 101,219 at the 84th Rose Bowl.

Avoiding a more ominous hail--a last-second, Hail Mary pass officials did not allow Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf to heave--Michigan completed a perfect 12-0 season and now must wait 24 hours for the judges' scorecards.

Although the Wolverines almost certainly clinched the Associated Press title with their victory--no No. 1 team that won its bowl game has ever lost the title--there remains the slim prospect that No. 2 Nebraska might claim the USA Today/ESPN coaches' title with a convincing victory against No. 3 Tennessee in tonight's Orange Bowl.

The final polls in this last season of the old bowl alliance will be announced Saturday.

"I have no doubt we should be national champions," Michigan quarterback Brian Griese said after his three-touchdown-pass, most-valuable-player performance. "We play the toughest schedule in the country, by far. To come to the Rose Bowl, play a great Washington State team, I ask you: 'Is there anything else you want us to do?' "

Sure.

It would have helped had Michigan defeated Washington State more convincingly. It would have helped had Cougar star tailback Michael Black not sat out most of the game because of a calf injury.

In the poll racket, it's as much about who you played as how you played.

As it was, Michigan probably did enough, getting spectacular play from the unsung Griese in a game-of-his-life performance.

Griese, who almost did not return for his fifth season, tossed scoring passes on plays of 53 and 58 yards to Streets and a 23-yard, fourth-quarter strike on a bootleg pass to Jerame Tuman that proved to be the game winner.

After Washington State had cut the lead to five on Rian Lindell's 48-yard field goal with 7:25 remaining, Griese also engineered a time-consuming drive that nearly kept the ball out of Leaf's hands altogether.

Griese made the play of the drive early, when he fought off a tackle in his backfield and raced 11 yards for a first down on third and 11 from his own 18.

Michigan converted four third downs on the series and held the ball nearly seven minutes before giving Washington State one last-chance possession from their seven with 29 seconds left.

They turned out to be 29 chaotic last ticks, with Leaf's 46-yard sideline completion to Nian Taylor at the Washington State 48 giving the Cougars a fleeting chance with nine seconds remaining.

The Cougars then unearthed a schoolyard "hook and lateral" play, with Leaf tossing an eight-yard pass to tight end Love Jefferson, who then pitched the ball to teammate Jason Clayton for an additional 18 yards to the Michigan 26.

With no timeouts remaining but the clock stopped with two seconds left to reset the chains, Leaf rushed to the line and tried to intentionally down the ball.

Officials, though, ruled the clock had expired before Leaf spiked the ball into the grass, a call that will remembered by Washington State fans for years.

Cougar Coach Mike Price said he considered having Leaf run a play with two seconds instead of trying to down the ball.

"Yeah, I gave that a little thought," Price said. "But I thought we had two seconds. I thought we had one-thousand one, one-thousand two. One Mississippi, two Mississippi."

The last-second sequence was all too familiar to the Wolverines, who lost to Colorado in 1994 on a famous last-second Hail Mary pass, Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook.

Asked to recount the final seconds, Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr jokingly declined.

"No," he said. "I don't want to relive that again, I promise you."

Had Washington State been allowed an additional fling, Leaf planned to fire one last pass to the corner of the end zone.

But it never came to pass.

Leaf was his usual self, completing 17 of 35 passes for 331 yards and a touchdown, although Michigan did sack him four times and harassed him often.

The Wolverines disguised their zone blitzes well, even using Woodson off the corner as a pass rusher.

"We knew we had to get pressure on him, not let him sit in the pocket and pick us apart," Woodson said.

The Cougars claimed not to be the same when Black, who rushed for 1,235 yards this season, left the game late in the first quarter with his calf injury. Black tried to return in the fourth quarter, but hobbled off the field after one carry.

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