Oct. 26, 2007
By Jason Krump
Only twice had it happened prior to 1997.
In 1915, a Washington State College squad, helmed by legendary coach William "Lone Star" Dietz, finished 7-0. A decade and a half later, another Cougar legend, coach Babe Hollingbery, led his 1930 team to nine consecutive wins to start the season.
In addition to beginning the season with at least seven wins, the 1915 and 1930 teams had something else in common ... both earned a trip to the Rose Bowl.
The 1915 team culminated its season with a 14-0 win over Brown in the first of the continuous Rose Bowls. The 1930 squad took its unblemished 9-0 mark to Pasadena but lost to Alabama 24-0.
Since 1930, only one other time did a Cougar team have a chance to reach the rarified air of 7-0. On Oct. 24, 1992, a Drew Bledsoe led 6-0 Cougar team battled USC at the Coliseum and despite 319 total yards in the second half, miscues during the final 30 minutes proved too much for WSU to overcome in its 31-24 defeat.
Five years later, the 1997 edition of the Cougars, now 6-0 after a dominant win over California, had the opportunity to join the '15 and '30 teams in the exclusive 7-0 club.
Days prior to the Arizona game, the Cougars already made history when the team moved up to a No. 10 ranking in both polls (AP, USA Today/ESPN). On only two other occasions had the program been ranked as high, in 1942 and 1958.
Making another date with history assuredly seemed to be on the side of WSU, as the team standing in the way of the Cougars' seventh straight win was a 3-4 Arizona squad that had just allowed 58 point to the Washington Huskies the week before.
"Going into that game, we knew they were a decent team, but they weren't as good as USC, UCLA or Oregon," defensive back Duane Stewart said of Arizona.
"We came out a little bit flat and we definitely made a lot of mistakes on defense. They scored on some big plays that they probably shouldn't have scored on."
The Pac-10 leading Cougars took their top 10 ranking and undefeated record before a crowd of over 31,000 and an ABC-TV audience into Martin Stadium on a partly cloudy, mid-40s fall afternoon.
It soon became apparent that Arizona was unimpressed by WSU's credentials, as the Cougars quickly fell behind by two touchdowns.
The Wildcats' initial score came after Kelvin Hunter picked off a Ryan Leaf pass and returned it to the Cougars' 11-yard line. Three plays later, quarterback Ortege Jenkins took it in from one yard out and Arizona was ahead, 7-0, less than five minutes into the game.
"Ryan and Shawn adlibbed on their own, they didn't normally do that, but they did it on this occasion," Mike Levenseller said. "The ball got picked and taken back close to a score and they wound up scoring off of it."
Suddenly behind, all the Cougar offense could produce as a response was a three and out. After regaining possession, Arizona took the ball from its own 28 and proceeded to march down the field on a 12-play drive that culminated in a 37-yard touchdown pass from Jenkins to Dennis Northcutt.
As surprising as being behind 7-0 was, it was even more shocking that, just over 10 minutes into the game, the Cougars were down 14-0 and facing their largest deficit of the season.
It didn't last long, however, as WSU received its wake-up call by responding with two touchdowns of its own, both coming by way of Ryan Leaf touchdowns, a 27-yard connection with Kevin McKenzie and a 37-yard hookup to Nian Taylor.
But just when it seemed that WSU had regained the momentum and control of the game, Arizona answered with a Jenkins one-yard pass to Kelvin Eafon to give the Wildcats the lead once again at 21-14.
That would be the score at the end of the half, which marked another first for the Cougars, the first time they had trailed at the half all season.
"Arizona did a pretty good job preparing for us and attacking the holes we had," Mike Price said.
Midway through the third, the Cougars tied the game at 21 on Leaf's second touchdown connection of the day to McKenzie, this one from 48 yards out.
But once again, Arizona rose to WSU's challenge with a 34-yard strike between Jenkins and Brad Brennan placing the Wildcats back up 28-21 with just over a minute left in the third quarter.
In this back and forth game, it was WSU's turn to respond, and they did in the fourth quarter when DeJuan Gilmore punched it in from one yard out. Lindell's extra point tied the game at 28 with 11:42 left.
The Cougars had an opportunity to take their first lead of the game when Shawn Tims returned a punt 15 yards to Arizona's 43; however, three plays generated only eight yards and Lindell's 53-yard field goal attempt with 3:26 remaining was wide right leaving the game deadlocked at 28, where it would be when regulation play ended.
"I was actually surprised that the game got to the point that it was," Stewart said. "We didn't really capitalize on the opportunities that we had."
On the same Martin Stadium field, WSU ended the 1996 season by falling in overtime to Washington. That loss help serve as a catalyst for the team heading into the 1997 season. Nearly a year later, the Cougars found themselves in another overtime session, again on the Martin Stadium field, with their season on the line.
"We had to step up to that challenge," Chris Jackson said.
Arizona won the coin toss and elected to play defense first, giving the Cougars an opportunity to take their first lead of the game.
They did just that when Leaf snuck it in from one-yard out. After Lindell's extra point, the Cougar were up 35-28.
Now it was Arizona's turn.
"We had taken the philosophy of a game-by-game, week-by-week thing. It was a matter how can we dominate or how can we do what we have to do to win this next ballgame. Coach kept instilling that. We didn't really realize where we were at until all of a sudden we win in overtime against Arizona and we are 7-0."
But momentum was on WSU's side and when the defense forced Arizona into a fourth- and-14 situation, the historic seventh win seemed to be assured. But the Cougars were called for pass interference giving Arizona new life.
Once again, the WSU defense forced Arizona into another decisive fourth down situation, but, once again, the defense could not put the Wildcats away. However, in this case, instead of allowing a first down, the Cougars gave up a touchdown when Jenkins connected with Rodney Williams on a six-yard pass play that pulled Arizona within one at 35-34.
Most of those in the crowd sitting in the fading daylight of Martin Stadium undoubtedly figured Arizona would kick the extra point sending the game into a second overtime.
But there was not going to be a second overtime. Arizona decided to go for two, and the win.
"From an offensive standpoint you have no control over whether or not they are going to make this two-point conversion," said Jackson, who had six catches for 76 yards.
Jenkins took the snap and rolled right; immediately tight end Brandon Manumaleuna ran to the back of the end zone, uncovered.
"At the time I thought we had it covered," Price said. "Then I saw the film and they probably could have thrown it and won."
"There wasn't anybody within 15 yards of that guy," Bill Doba said. "He (Jenkins) could have thrown it over his head backwards and completed the pass but he chose to run."
Right into Duane Stewart and LeJuan Gibbons.
"Open field tackling is not an easy thing," Stewart explained. "I just wanted to grab him. As soon as I get my hands on him he's wasn't going anywhere.
"When I made the tackle I thought, `You're down,'" Stewart added. "All of sudden he just threw the ball and I thought, `What did he just do?'"
What Jenkins did was purposely fumble the ball into the end zone. Though there was a frantic scramble going on for it, unless Jenkins was at the bottom of the pile with the ball, Arizona would lose. The rule was that Jenkins, as the player who fumbled, was the only Arizona player who could legally recover it.
And, besides, Jenkins wasn't in the endzone, he was sitting at the 3-yard line next to Stewart. While the free-for-all was taking place in the endzone, Stewart and Jenkins were exchanging pleasantries.
"I said to him, "That was smart, but it didn't work," Stewart recalled.
"Jenkins tried to roll out and do it himself," Jackson said, "but the defense stepped up and that kept our season going."
The Cougars left Martin Stadium, or maybe escaped, with a 35-34 win, thus securing a spot in the exclusive club of 7-0 and the realization to not take an opponent for granted, and what they were accomplishing was something special.
"As a team, especially when you are not used to winning, it is nice to at least get a good punch in the face a couple of times to wake you up and bring you back to reality," Stewart said. "That's basically what happened."
"We had taken the philosophy of a game-by-game, week-by-week thing," Leaf said. "It was a matter how can we dominate or how can we do what we have to do to win this next ballgame. Coach kept instilling that.
"We didn't really realize where we were at until all of a sudden we win in overtime against Arizona and we are 7-0," Leaf added.
There was one other item that the coaches and players took away from the game.
With the outcome of the game just minutes old, Levenseller made his way to the Fieldhouse to enjoy the traditional post game festivities.
"I was coming out to the Fieldhouse," Levenseller remembered, "and the first six or seven people who saw me, stopped and said, `Nice win, but what is with your receivers today?' It was one of those deals. I'm thinking we are 7-0 for the first time in 67 years; we just won an overtime game and these people aren't happy with me right now.
"That's when I knew we arrived."
Relive the Roses
- Chapter 1: Motivation
- Chapter 2: Fourth and Roses to Go
- Chapter 3: The Catch. The Block. Vanquishing History.
- Chapter 4: The Nation Begins to Take Notice
- Chapter 5: Fabulous!
- Chapter 6: Getting Defensive
- Chapter 7: 63 and 6-0
- Chapter 8: In Elite Company
- Chapter 9: Fumble, Then a Recovery
- Chapter 10: Stepping Up to the Challenge
- Chapter 11: Memories of a Memorable Man
- Chapter 12: Confidence
- Chapter 13: A Storybook Championship
- Chapter 14: Leading up to New Year's Day
- Chapter 15: A Block that Lent a Great Assist
- Chapter 16: A Game 67 Years in the Making
- Chapter 17: Playing No. 1 to a Deadlock
- Chapter 18: To the Final Snap