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WSU's Fab Five Poses Challenge for Woodson

January 02, 1998|KELLY WHITESIDE | NEWSDAY

PASADENA — When Charles Woodson was 7 and his brother Terry was 12, they invented a game called couch football. Each boy had two plays to reach the end zone, which was the couch in the living room of their Fremont, Ohio, home. Inevitably, various pieces of furniture ended up on injured reserve.

"We went through a lot of Krazy Glue," said Terry, who never took it easy on his younger brother. "I couldn't let him beat me."

You have to go back to those couch football days to find the last time Charles Woodson was burned on a regular basis. Woodson, the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, hasn't been tested in a while. That's why he's looking forward to tomorrow's Rose Bowl matchup with Washington State's Fab Five, one of the best group of receivers in the country.

All eyes will be on Woodson and the Fab Five since the game will match the top-ranked Michigan defense that allowed only 8.9 points per game against Washington State's high-octane offense, which ranked second nationally in scoring with an average of 42.5 points.

Both teams, though, have tried to downplay the individual matchup.

"I only know of one Fab Five," Woodson said. "And that was Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King and Jalen Rose."

Michigan and the Fab Five? Reunited again? Try again, Charles. As for a Washington State rebuttal, Cougars quarterback Ryan Leaf has pointed out that Woodson can't cover all five receivers at once.

The Cougars run a pass-happy, wide-open offense and have Leaf, whom Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr called the best quarterback he has seen in his 18 years at the school. But there is more to the Cougars' high-scoring offense, which Washington State Coach Mike Price called basketball on grass than just an innovative playbook. "It's not so much the scheme," Carr said, "as it is the people who are executing that scheme."

So who are the Fab Five? Amazingly, none of the five played receiver in high school. The best of the bunch is a former college basketball player, Chris Jackson, a senior from Santa Ana, Calif. Jackson did not play football until his brother Ray, now a Cougars cornerback, persuaded him to give the sport a try at Orange Coast College. Jackson then transferred to Washington State to join his brother. "He gets better every time he takes a breath," Price said of Chris Jackson, who caught 49 passes this season for 916 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Kevin McKenzie was a running back in high school in Long Beach, Calif. This season the senior caught a team-high 50 passes for 833 yards and 10 touchdowns. Shawn Tims, a senior from Vallejo, Calif., was a running back before coming to Washington State as a walk-on. He caught 35 passes and is the only Fab without a touchdown.

Shawn McWashington, a senior from Seattle, was a quarterback in high school. His father, Ammon, played tailback for the Cougars in the late '60s.

Nian Taylor, the only junior among the group, was a running back in Riverside, Calif. He averaged 25 yards a catch this season.

Because Leaf spreads the ball so evenly -- his favorite receiver is the one who is open -- none of the Fab Five were selected to the All-Pac-10 first or second teams, and none were among the league's reception leaders.

This group also will have to tangle with Woodson's talented buddies on the secondary, including safety Marcus Ray and cornerback Andre Weathers, both named first-team Big Ten. All of the Fabs are looking forward to the challenge of being covered by Woodson. And Leaf has said that he plans to throw Woodson's way, which is something many quarterbacks feared to do this season.

"That's what I play for," Woodson said.

"It's a good challenge. But I really don't know what Ryan is going to do. Whatever happens I will be ready for it and our defense will be ready for it. But it's going to be a test for us."

This season, Michigan hasn't seen an offense close to what the Cougars run, a combination of the run-and-shoot (with receivers spread across the field from sideline to sideline) and the ball-control elements of the West Coast offense.

The only Big Ten team that runs a similar offense is Purdue, coached by former Washington State assistant Joe Tiller.

But Michigan didn't play Purdue this season.

Washington State, too, will have its hands full countering Woodson, who also plays wide receiver and returns punts.

In practice this week, two Washington State scout-team players -- one on offense, the other on defense -- wore Woodson's No.2 jersey.

"I would imagine they'd have a very tough time simulating Charles," Michigan quarterback Brian Griese said. "I don't know that they have a Heisman Trophy winner on their team."

Likewise, Woodson has never faced a group of receivers as talented as the Fab Five.

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