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ROSE BOWL / Michigan 21, Washington State 16

Cougars' Lament: Hey, Wait a Second

Commentary: Washington State loses out in a confusing game of beat the clock.

January 02, 1998|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

First, it needs to be said that Michigan won the game it had to win at the Rose Bowl on Thursday and deserves to be national champion. It also needs to be said that the Wolverines' victory over Washington State may long be remembered as a game of punctuation.

Instead of an exclamation point, this one ended with a question mark.

What really happened in those last two seconds? Why was the clock allowed to run out? How is the clock controlled, and by which official or officials? Did Washington State and its talented quarterback, Ryan Leaf, really have one last gasp in them, and in the clock? And if there was a precious tick remaining, did the Cougars let it slip away with a bad decision?

Everything in the frenzy of those closing seconds, with 101,219 people screaming and the network TV cameras turned on to the world, is pretty much speculation. Merely finding out after the game who holds his thumb on the game clock button and how, why and when that button is pushed was like a Woodward and Bernstein project.

But a careful look at what happened leads to the conclusion that Washington State made a wrong assumption that may have cost it that one last chance.

"And even if we get that last play," Cougar Coach Mike Price said, "we still have got to line up and throw the pass into the end zone and catch it, and that's no sure thing."

This is how the final flurry came to pass:

With nine seconds remaining and the Cougars at their 48-yard line and trailing Michigan, 21-16, Leaf passed over the middle to Love Jefferson at the Michigan 41. Jefferson, about to be tackled, lateraled to Jason Clayton, who took the ball to the Michigan 26 before being tackled. The moment he was tackled, the officials, a Southeastern Conference crew headed by referee Dick Burleson, signaled for the clock to be stopped. The rules call for that because, even though Clayton was tackled inbounds, he had made a first down and the chains are moved during dead-clock time.

The clock is not stopped by an official on the field or by anyone in the press box, but by a member of the Rose Bowl game management staff along the sidelines. He is instructed to push the button to stop the clock in immediate reaction to a signal to do so from officials on the field. He can't act until they do.

When Clayton hit the turf, Burleson signaled for clock stoppage and the button was pushed with two seconds showing. Indeed, somehow, Leaf's pass, Jefferson's catch, Jefferson's lateral to Clayton, Clayton's run and Clayton's tackle took only seven seconds.

Then it got interesting.

For Leaf and the Cougars, two seconds showing seemed like plenty. Remember, this is a day and age where NBA teams score 10 points in six seconds, or Duke tosses a three-quarter-length pass to Christian Laettner, who turns around and takes a shot and wins the game all in fractions of seconds. That stuff is right there almost every night on "SportsCenter," so it must really happen.

So Leaf and the Cougars probably saw two seconds as an eternity.

Wide receiver Kevin McKenzie summed up the sentiments of his team afterward: "There should be one second left on the clock right now, and we should still have one more play, but the officials say time expired."

When the officials stopped the clock, Leaf and his team knew exactly what would happen next. The official would move the chains, watch until the chains were set, and then do that windmill thing with his arm that meant the timer along the sideline was to push the button to start the clock. This was not a case where the clock was to start with the snap.

So Leaf and the Cougars rushed downfield to the line of scrimmage and got set up in formation. The moment that official's arm moved, they had to snap the ball, and they knew it. They were set.

But here is where they probably made their mistake. Their plan was for Leaf to get the snap and immediately spike the ball to stop the clock, thereby allowing themselves one more huddle and the luxury of a planned play.

Instead, by the time Leaf spiked the ball, the clock showed :00 and the game was over. That meant that, even though the snap probably took place before time had expired, and Leaf's spike of the ball probably hit the turf before time had expired, the time it took for the referee to signal the spike and ask for the man along the sidelines to punch the button to stop the clock, and the time it took for the man along the sideline to see that signal and react to it was the additional second that Washington State expected to have.

Price said, "With two seconds, I think you can down the ball. I thought it was an official's mistake. We thought about [just] throwing the ball, but thought we had two seconds."

As it turned out, "just throwing the ball" would have been the right decision, the only chance. Once Leaf got the snap in his hands, it wouldn't have mattered that the clock ran out. He gets to finish the play, and if the play is a touchdown pass, Washington State wins and Michigan is deprived of its national title.

Trying to unravel this afterward was a test of endurance and patience.

The officials didn't elaborate or in any way respond to the two-second controversy because they said the SEC has a rule against officials talking to the press after games. One Pac-10 administrator, trying to get some access for the press, was also turned back and snarled angrily: "This is not the damn SEC. This is the Rose Bowl."

There was also the predictable disagreement as to what would have happened had Washington State had that one last shot.

Said Chris Jackson: "It just would have been a jump ball, and Ryan would have thrown it up there nice and easy for one of us."

Charles Woodson, Michigan's Heisman Trophy-winning defensive back, said, "If they had had another second, one of our guys would have gone up and gotten it."

Jackson said the one thing that everybody in the place would probably agree on: "That time went from two seconds to zero so fast I couldn't believe it."

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