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ROSE BOWL / Michigan 21, Washington State 16

Next for Leaf: Deciding Where to Fall

Washington State: Quarterback will announce today whether he will make himself available for the NFL draft.

January 02, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ryan Leaf will wake up a Washington State Cougar this morning, but he might not be one much longer than that.

Leaf will hold an 8 a.m. news conference at the team's Santa Monica hotel to announce whether he will declare for the NFL draft--a decision many consider a foregone conclusion with Leaf expected to be among the top three picks.

"I just think he'll leave," said Nian Taylor, one of the Fab Five receivers. "If I was him, I'd leave."

Leaf made his decision at Thanksgiving, but decided to keep it under wraps until after the game.

"I feel very comfortable with my decision," he said after passing for 331 yards--the fifth-highest total in Rose Bowl history--during the Washington State loss. "I don't want to take away from this football team and what it accomplished. That deserves all the attention.

"I think we've set a precedent. Look out for Cougar football in '98 and in the future."

Leaf passed for 80 more yards than Michigan's Brian Griese Thursday, but Griese upstaged him as the player of the game in the Wolverines' 21-16 victory.

In the most anticipated matchup of the Rose Bowl, Heisman finalist against Heisman winner, Michigan's Charles Woodson came out the winner--again.

With Washington State leading, 7-0, in the second quarter and the Cougars on the move, Leaf rolled out and lofted an underthrown pass toward Kevin McKenzie in the left corner of the end zone.

But Woodson leaped and snared it, and instead of 14-0, the score remained 7-0. Two possessions later, Michigan tied the score.

"I was trying to throw it out of bounds and it slipped out of my hand and fluttered," Leaf said. "I thought the right thing to do was throw it out of bounds. But he's such a great player, if you make a mistake, he's going to beat you. I think we needed points there and we didn't get them."

Said Woodson: "I just cut underneath, and Ryan just threw a wobbly pass."

Early on, it looked as if Washington State's one-back passing offense would overwhelm Michigan. But the Wolverines kept up a steady stream of blitzes from all over the field, often sending Woodson after Leaf, and it was an effective tactic.

"The best defense is a good pass rush," Leaf said. "They did a good job with the zone blitz."

Leaf, dogged by dropped passes early in the game, completed 17 of 35 passes with the one interception and one touchdown--a 15-yard pass to McKenzie.

"Early on, we were trying to catch and run with the ball instead of just catching the ball and getting the first down," Washington State Coach Mike Price said. "We had a chance to control the ball if we just catch the football."

Even in defeat, Leaf showed the skills that are expected to serve him well in the NFL.

He was at his best on the Cougars' 99-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, connecting with Shawn McWashington for a 19-yard gain, Chris Jackson for 30 and McKenzie for 20 as he completed four of five passes on the drive.

Leaf also displayed his hard-nosed running ability a few times, keeping the ball 10 times for 35 yards--including a couple of exciting third-down rambles--though sack yardage left him with a net of six yards.

"He's big time," Price said. "I think he's the best player in the country."

Leaf couldn't help but be disappointed.

"I don't feel I played to my abilities," he said.

"I could have made better decisions."

He only wishes he'd had time for one more.

While Griese and the Wolverines sustained a time-eating, seven-minute drive in the fourth quarter, Leaf stood on the sidelines, waiting for his final chance.

Michigan converted on four third downs on that drive, and Leaf paid Griese his compliments: "Very impressed," he said.

"Like I said, that's Big Ten football," Leaf said. "Grind it out--and they only left us 30 seconds to try to score."

A 46-yard pass to Taylor got Washington State into Michigan territory, and a hook-and-lateral play got the Cougars to the Michigan 26 with two seconds left in the game.

Leaf spiked the ball trying to stop the clock for one last play, but officials ruled time had expired.

"I still feel if we had one more shot, we could have made something happen," Leaf said. "Everybody on the team thought we could win the football game."

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