Friday, December 26, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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From Pullman To Pasadena -- Cougars On A Roll -- 4 Months Ago, Few Expected Honors, Roses

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Washington State in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 67 years?

The Cougars' Mike Price named national coach of the year?

WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf becoming a viable Heisman Trophy candidate?

Four months ago, when the Cougar football team was expected to finish no better than seventh in the Pac-10, what has unfolded couldn't have seemed more unlikely.

But Thursday, the No. 8 Cougars will play No. 1 Michigan in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

The Cougars' magical season began with a dramatic victory over UCLA in Pullman and ended with a dramatic victory over Washington at Husky Stadium. In between, there was enough drama to last a lifetime for Cougar fans.

WSU 37, UCLA 34

PULLMAN - The offensive show generated 995 total yards (529 by WSU and 466 by UCLA), 10 touchdowns (five by WSU, four by Bruin tailback Skip Hicks) and one field goal (20 yards by WSU's Rian Lindell) in front of 26,000 fans and an ABC television audience.

But, ironically, it was a goal-line stand by the Cougars that decided the outcome with 2 minutes, 48 seconds to play.

The Bruins, who blew a 14-3 lead when the Cougars scored 27 unanswered points in the second quarter, were threatening to wipe out all of what had been a 30-14 deficit. But, on fourth-and-goal from the WSU 1, redshirt freshman Jermaine Lewis took a handoff from quarterback Cade McNown and was stopped for no gain.

"It happened real fast," defensive tackle Shane Doyle said. "We were tired. But I had all the confidence in the world that we would stop them. I knew that they were going to run up the middle. The whole line did a good job. We kept saying, `Stay low, stay low,' and we did."

Lewis was playing in place of senior Skip Hicks, who had rushed for 190 yards on 27 carries (including a 92-yard run on the game's second play). Hicks had taken himself out of the game, saying he was exhausted.

WSU 28, USC 21

LOS ANGELES - Combining on two consecutive pass completions for 82 yards and a touchdown, Ryan Leaf and Kevin McKenzie took just a few seconds to erase 40 years of football frustration for WSU.

The second completion, which covered 51 yards after McKenzie made a one-handed catch of Leaf's pass, broke a 21-21 tie with 4:18 to play. The outcome ended a 15-game string of losses suffered by WSU to USC in Los Angeles since 1957.

"It means an awful lot," Coach Mike Price said. "I think these players deserved to make history. And they did make history. I'm just thankful to be their coach."

The Cougars built a 21-6 halftime lead as Leaf completed touchdown passes of 3 yards to Shawn McWashington and 6 yards to Love Jefferson around a 16-yard touchdown run by Michael Black.

But the Cougars could do nothing in the third quarter, which began with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by USC's R. Jay Soward. The Trojans added a touchdown on a 15-yard pass from John Fox to Mike Bastianelli and tallied a two-point conversion to tie the score at 21 with 12:44 to play.

Then, Leaf and McKenzie provided the coup de grace.

On third-and-12 from the WSU 18, Leaf and McKenzie combined on a 31-yard pass play for a first down at the WSU 49.

Next, Leaf found McKenzie over the middle. Running at about the USC 28 with Trojan free safety Chad Morton, McKenzie reached up with his right hand and pulled the ball down. He seemed to stumble a little before heading for the end zone.

At about the 20, McKenzie got a big block from McWashington that allowed him to score.

WSU 35, Illinois 22

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Despite being penalized 18 times for 126 yards, yielding four turnovers, experiencing first-half befuddlement over an Illinois defensive scheme and allowing Robert Holcombe to run for 163 yards, the Cougars found a way to win.

Three interceptions and a lost fumble tarnished Ryan Leaf's performance, but the junior quarterback also completed 21 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns to four receivers.

The key for the Cougars was generating a running attack in the second half. After netting only 49 yards on the ground in the first half, they rumbled for 170 after intermission, utilizing split-back formations that led to big gains around the outside.

Senior tailback Michael Black finished with 112 yards on 19 carries (5.9 average). Sophomore DeJuan Gilmore had 36 yards on three carries (12.0 average), redshirt freshman Adam Hawkins had 17 yards on four trips and junior Miguel Meriwether had 15 on two carries.

WSU 58, Boise State 0

PULLMAN - Offense, defense and the kicking game all were positive factors as the Cougars refused to let their role as 39-point favorites deter them from improving their record to 4-0.

Offense? Ryan Leaf completed 17 of 30 passes for 289 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back Michael Black rushed 17 times for 141 yards and a touchdown.

Defense? In scoring WSU's first shutout since 1994 (21-0 over UCLA), the Cougars held Boise State to 46 yards rushing and 115 total yards.

Kicking game? Shawn Tims returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown and place-kicker Rian Lindell booted a 57-yard field goal en route to taking individual scoring honors with 16 points.

WSU 24, Oregon 13

EUGENE, Ore. - Contributions from the offense, defense and kicking game led Coach Mike Price to conclude that it was a team victory, attributable to the veteran nature of the Cougars.

"We've won some tough games on the road (at USC and Illinois)," Price said. "Our team knows how to play on the road and knows how to get ready. They're a veteran club, and I am really proud of them."

While the offense struggled early - the Cougars' first four series each ended after three plays and a punt - the defense held the fort. Ultimately, the offense countered positively in masking defensive shortfalls.

Kicking-game contributions included Rian Lindell's decisive 27-yard field goal with 3:10 to play, another quality punting performance by Jeff Banks and an Oregon field-goal attempt blocked by Gary Holmes.

Quarterback Ryan Leaf completed only one of his first seven passes but hit 15 of his last 20 in going 16 for 27 for 226 yards and one touchdown (12 yards to Kevin McKenzie). Running back Michael Black rushed for 114 yards on 24 carries and scored two touchdowns on runs of 1 and 6 yards.

WSU 63, California 37

PULLMAN - Ryan Leaf joined a distinguished group of record-setting WSU quarterbacks by throwing a career-high five touchdown passes.

Running back Michael Black produced, directed and starred in a highlight-reel performance while scoring his third of three touchdowns.

DeJuan Gilmore reminded a homecoming crowd of 35,739 in Martin Stadium that Black isn't the team's only running back by scoring on a 54-yard run - the longest run from scrimmage of the season for the Cougars.

And the WSU defense dominated when it counted.

Before retiring late in the third quarter, Leaf completed 13 of 21 passes for 332 yards. His five touchdown passes equaled WSU's single-game record shared by Jack Thompson, who threw five against Washington in 1976; Timm Rosenbaugh, who had five against Tennessee in 1988, and Drew Bledsoe, who pitched five against Oregon State in 1991.

Black turned a short pass into a 55-yard touchdown play with a run that left fans and foes gasping.

On second-and-12 at the WSU 45, Leaf appeared destined to be sacked by Brandon Whiting, who spun the quarterback around. But Leaf recovered long enough to throw the ball sidearm to Black, who was about 10 yards downfield, at the Cal 45.

Black first broke free of a shoestring tackle attempt by Derrick Gardner. Then he stumbled forward while running down the sideline, giving an indication that he was about to fall over.

Righted at about the 10, Black put a move on Peter Destafano in getting around the free safety. Then he dived over cornerback Kato Serwango in reaching the end zone.

"That was all coaching," Price said with a grin.

WSU 35, Arizona 34 (OT)

PULLMAN - Ryan Leaf passed for a career-high 384 yards and three touchdowns, Kevin McKenzie caught eight passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns and Michael Black rushed for 116 yards.

But the offensive outpouring by the Cougars was little more than a footnote to the sequence of events in overtime that led to WSU remaining unbeaten.

Appropriately, it was Leaf who scored the Cougars' winning touchdown in overtime when, for the second time in what was a prolonged, seven-play series that began on the Arizona 25, he tallied on a dive over right guard on third down from the 1. The first time Leaf appeared to score during the series, it was nullified by the Cougars' 13th of the 14 penalties they ultimately were assessed.

Rian Lindell added the extra point and the Cougars - who had come from behind three times to tie the score at 14, 21 and 28 - had their first lead at 35-28.

Then, it was Arizona's turn.

And the Wildcats, who twice were given fourth-down, drive-sustaining reprieves by a pass-interference penalty and a noise timeout just before the play clock was to expire, scored on a two-yard pass from Ortege Jenkins to Rodney Williams to cut WSU's lead to 35-34.

Arizona Coach Dick Tomey decided to go for the victory by opting for a two-point conversion play instead of kicking the extra point that, had it been successful, would have forced another overtime.

Tomey called for a play-action rollout by Jenkins, who had the option to pass or run. But, after rolling right, Jenkins couldn't get a pass off before he was tackled by WSU safety Duane Stewart.

Arizona St. 44, WSU 31

TEMPE, Ariz. - What once had seemed impossible - a comeback from a 24-0 deficit to a 25-24 lead - was achieved by WSU.

But before the Cougars could celebrate what would have been their eighth straight victory, and one of the most dramatic in WSU history, Arizona State staged a rally of its own and handed the Cougars their first loss of the season.

In front of 73,644 fans in Sun Devil Stadium - the fifth largest crowd in ASU history - the Sun Devils scored 20 straight points after they had fallen behind 25-24.

A five-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Kealy to Tariq McDonald with 9:57 to play put ASU back on top, 30-25.

Then, consecutive WSU series ended when Leaf was hit while attempting to pass and fumbled. Hamilton Mee recovered the first fumble and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown with 2:55 to play. Then, Joe Cesta recovered the second fumble in the end zone for a touchdown with 2:32 to play.

Leaf, playing with his right forearm taped and sheathed as the result of "tweaking a ligament" during a practice the night before, completed 24 of 49 passes for 447 yards and three touchdowns. That was the second highest passing yardage total ever for a Cougar, behind the 476 yards posted by Drew Bledsoe.

WSU 77, SW Louisiana 7

PULLMAN - Ryan Leaf, the first of four WSU quarterbacks, completed 13 of 21 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns while playing in just the first half. The four touchdown passes boosted Leaf's total to a WSU career record of 54, bettering the mark of 53 posted by Jack Thompson from 1975-78.

Leaf also scored on a 1-yard run in front of 32,325 fans.

Leaf's touchdown passes covered 7 yards to Chris Jackson, 26 yards to Kevin McKenzie, 18 yards to tight end Love Jefferson and 6 yards to backup tight end Jon Kincaid. For Kincaid, a senior from nearby Colfax, it was the first touchdown reception of his career.

The Cougars took a 14-0 lead before Southwestern Louisiana had the ball. They stretched the margin to 42-0 before the Ragin' Cajuns had a first down, to 63-0 before the visitors crossed midfield and to 77-7 before Jeff Banks punted for the first (and only) time.

WSU 38, Stanford 28

PULLMAN - They twice blew 10-point leads. Their porous special teams threatened to give the game away. And their defense in the first half was something less than stout.

But, featuring the passing of Ryan Leaf, the catching of Chris Jackson and Kevin McKenzie and the running of Michael Black, the Cougars rewarded a record crowd of 40,306 in Martin Stadium with a victory over Stanford.

Stanford's Troy Walters returned a Cougar punt 77 yards for a touchdown to put the Cardinal ahead 28-27 early in the fourth quarter. But stability was restored when WSU completed its next two possessions with a touchdown on a 4-yard run by Black, and Rian Lindell's third field goal of the game, a 29-yarder that all but put the outcome out of Stanford's reach with 4:23 to play.

Leaf completed 23 of 37 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns. In doing so, he bettered Drew Bledsoe's school record for single-season passing yardage of 3,246. Leaf has 3,279 yards.

WSU 41, Washington 35

SEATTLE - Cougars young and old shared a magical bond in a most unusual place after WSU earned a berth in the Rose Bowl with an Apple Cup victory over Washington.

When the outcome finally was secured, it set in motion a celebration as strange as any ever held in Husky Stadium, simply because it was the Huskies' cross-state rivals and their fans who were celebrating.

As rain poured out of the dark sky, some of the Cougars clutched long-stemmed roses, others wore hats and held up T-shirts proclaiming WSU as Pac-10 Conference champions, an accomplishment that means the Cougars will play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 67 years.

"I really feel this team has touched all of America," Coach Mike Price said after accepting the Apple Cup and a bouquet of roses from a Rose Bowl official.

"America" might be a bit of a reach, but Price's remark typified the mood of the moment inside and outside the WSU locker room.

"This is the best feeling of my life," said Michael Black, the running back from Los Angeles.

"It was great to get into this situation, where we had a chance to go the Rose Bowl," said strong safety Torry Hollimon, a graduate of Everett's Cascade High. "Now that we're going, it's even greater."

"There are a few people sitting in there (locker room) shaking their heads," wide receiver Shawn Tims said. "It's going to take awhile for it all to sink in. We are going to appreciate every moment of it.

"We have worked hard. We did it. We've happy. We're here."

And, after being reminded about the 67-year gap between WSU's Rose Bowl appearances, Tims added: "We're past due."

The game, as so many have been for WSU this season, was a showcase for quarterback Ryan Leaf, who completed 22 of 38 passes for 358 yards and two touchdowns. The only pass he threw that was intercepted went for a touchdown - a 32-yard return by Tony Parrish that cut what had been a 24-7 Cougar lead to 24-21 with 6 minutes, 4 seconds to play in the third quarter.

But with Leaf at the controls, the Cougars never relinquished their lead.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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