Aug. 30, 2007
By Jason Krump
No one knew it at the time, but when UCLA faced Washington State on a sunny, hot August afternoon at Martin Stadium, the Pac-10 representative to the 1998 Rose Bowl would be determined by the game's outcome.
Although it was the first game of the season, the significance of the late summer clash between the Bruins and Cougars grew with each passing week of the 1997 season.
It was a game originally scheduled for November, but, in order to have it broadcast on ABC, WSU Athletic Director Rick Dickson moved it to August 30, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.
"There was anxious anticipation of the game," WSU Head Coach Mike Price remembered. "It was a great opportunity to do something special. The whole team was looking at it as an opportunity. I was pounding that fact into the players' heads during the spring, summer, and the fall camp. We didn't need a tune-up; let's take on UCLA right away."
"We were just trying to prepare for UCLA, who was going to be darn good that year," Bill Doba, defensive coordinator and linebackers' coach of the 1997 team said about the team's fall camp. "I knew they had a great offense. We had a lot of `no name kids' that stayed all summer, worked their tails off, and got ready.
"If you are going to play somebody that is pretty good, you want to do it early," Doba added.
"It was an epic battle; we played them tough all the way to the end. Luckily for us, we had a tremendous defensive stand at the end of the football game."
The schedule change gave the Cougars the unprecedented opportunity to open the season against both Los Angeles schools. After a bye week, WSU was scheduled to travel to USC for a Sept. 13 meeting.
"To open up a schedule with UCLA and USC was a little bit daunting if you look at our previous history against those teams," said Mike Levenseller, wide receivers coach on the 1997 team.
Additionally, the schedule change proved to be historic off the field as ABC broadcaster Keith Jackson, a 1954 graduate of Washington State, would broadcast his first WSU game from Pullman.
A name Jackson was not going to call at the outset was Leon Bender's. The outspoken WSU defensive tackle would be serving a penance brought on by his actions at the Apple Cup the previous season.
More specifically, it was Bender's reaction to the official who made the holding call on Michael Black's run in overtime that was the cause of his sitting on the bench.
"I didn't see it, but apparently Bender ran the official (who made the call) off the field," Price said.
"I talked to Leon about it," Price remembers. "He said he didn't think he would be disciplined since it was the last game of the season. I said `You will, and you will not start the first game of this season.'"
"Leon chased the official into the tunnel after the game," Doba said. "He wrote a letter of apology to him and Mike said he would not start the first game."
The benching of Bender at game's start meant that the Cougar defense would be without one of its stalwarts while facing one of the elite backs in the nation, Skip Hicks. The question was, for how long?
"During two-a-days, Bill kept asking me how many plays he is going to miss," Price said.
On its opening possession, backed up with the ball at its own six, UCLA ran a play off tackle for no gain.
And the second play?
"Hicks rips one off for 92 yards right over where Bender would be playing," Price said. "It couldn't have been a worse start for us.
"So Bill saunters down the sideline, with his arms folded over, and said, `Have I proved my point?'" Price added with a laugh.
"I looked down at Mike, and he said, `That's long enough, get him in there,'" remembers Doba. "If looks could kill. Mike realized he needed to get him back in there."
Hicks' 92-yard run began a nearly 200-yard rushing day for him; however, it was the yard he did not gain that would be the game's preeminent storyline.
WSU defensive back Ray Jackson prevented Hicks from reaching the end zone, catching him at the 2-yard line, but two plays later, Hicks took it in to give UCLA a 7-0 lead just over a minute into the game.
Hicks added another touchdown, this one a 9-yard run, seven seconds into the second quarter to extend the Bruins' lead to 14-3.
That's when WSU's offense began to roll, to the tune of 27 unanswered second quarter points that gave the Cougars a 30-14 halftime advantage.
The blitz began with Black's 17-yard touchdown run. A 57-yard pass from Ryan Leaf, who missed a couple of first quarter series after what he described as "rolling my ankle pretty bad," to Nian Taylor followed. The Leaf-Taylor touchdown combination gave WSU its first lead of the game at 16-14 (in what seemed to be the only blemish of the quarter for WSU, Rian Lindell missed the extra point). The quarter was capped by a Leaf one-yard sneak and a 29-yard pass from Leaf to, once again, Taylor.
Kevin McKenzie fumbled the second half kickoff and DuVal Hicks recovered for UCLA at the Cougars' 18. The Bruins' other Hicks, Skip, who had torn through the Cougar defense for 135 first half yards, capped a 5-play drive with his third touchdown of the game, from two yards out, to pull the Bruins to 30-21.
But, in what would be a trend by this team all season, the Cougars immediately responded to the challenge. It took them only three plays to answer.
On a third and eight at their own 21, Chris Jackson caught a short slant from Leaf at the 25 and proceeded to run the remaining 75 yards to the east Martin Stadium end zone, reestablishing the Cougars' 16-point advantage with 11:51 remaining in the third quarter.
"We came right back to Chris Jackson for a touchdown but they just kept battling back," Levenseller said. "I give them credit. They battled back hard that game."
Two Bruin scores, the latter being Hicks' fourth touchdown run of the day early in the fourth quarter, brought UCLA to within three points at 37-34.
WSU threatened to extend its lead, but, facing a fourth-and-goal situation at the Bruins' 10, Price decided to go for the touchdown by attempting a fake field goal. Holder David Muir's pass was picked off by UCLA's Larry Atkins, who returned the ball to the 6.
With 8:38 remaining, UCLA found itself starting a drive at the same yard line as their first series of the game. Instead of hitting the big play, however, as Hicks' 92-yard first quarter run, the Bruins steadily drove the ball down the field.
On the drive's 10th play, a first and goal from the WSU 9, Hicks was dropped for a loss of one. It was his third consecutive carry and his fifth overall.
Hicks left the game for a breather, and his replacement, Jermaine Lewis, proceeded to be dropped for another yard loss on the next play.
However, on a third and goal from the 11, Lewis took a pass from quarterback Cade McNown to the one, setting up a fourth and goal.
Eschewing the tie and overtime, UCLA Head Coach Bob Toledo decided to go for the lead.
"When you are that far from the goal line, you are not worried about overtime, you are worried about winning the game at that point," Toledo said afterward. "We had the play we wanted. We knew where we were. It was the play we were going to call in that situation."
The Martin Stadium crowd of 26,000 and ABC regional televised audience assumed who the ball would be given to. Up to this point in the game, Hicks had run the ball for 194 yards; however, it would not be 195.
Exhaustion had done to Hicks what the Cougar defense could not. Stop him.
On what was an 80 plus degree day in Pullman, with temperatures much higher on the Martin Stadium artificial turf, Hicks took himself out of the game, citing exhaustion.
"Hicks was exhausted. There was no way he could have carried the ball at that point." Toledo said after the game. "(Hicks) said, `Coach, I'm exhausted,' and he was. He was very tired."
When Hicks rumbled for 92 yards on the game's second play, he ran through the spot normally occupied by the absent Bender.
Now, with the game in its late stages, it was Hicks who wasn't in action, but Bender was.
Though Bender was on the field as both teams came to the line, Doba realized something was wrong. WSU had the wrong formation for what it was facing.
"We called our goal line defense, and they came out with their formation, and we set it the wrong way," Doba said. "I'm trying to call timeout, and they don't see me."
It was too late. The ball was snapped, and the game's, and as history determined, the Cougars' Rose Bowl hopes, rode on the outcome.
Lewis took the ball right up the middle, and right into Bender.
"They run right to where we are supposed to be, and we weren't," Doba said. "If he bounces outside he could walk in. Instead he planted, cut it off left tackle, and Bender nailed his butt for a big loss.
"They're saying `Great defense, great call,' and I'm thinking `Oh my God.'" Doba laughs when he thinks back to the play. "You have to have some luck."
Despite the stand, there was still 2:48 left. The Cougars needed a couple of first downs in order to run the clock out.
After two running plays netted eight yards, WSU faced a third and two at the 9 when UCLA called time out.
"Leaf went over to the sideline, and then I went over there," receiver Shawn McWashington said. "By the time I got there, they had already decided to call this deep, play action post route, which would have gotten the ball to me. On the previous two plays we had run out of the same formation, and they ran a coverage that would have actually taken that away.
"What was really good about Coach Price is that he knew how much we studied the game; he really valued our input," added McWashington, currently the Director of Student-Athlete Academic services at Tulane University, coincidentally, the same school where Toledo is now head coach.
McWashington told Price that since they had just ran the same formation twice, line-up in the same formation, but this time call a hitch route.
"If they run the same coverage it will be an easy pitch and catch; if they don't, and they play bump and run, you get Chris (Jackson) and me running deep fade routes," McWashington said. "You still get the long ball that you want to throw anyway."
Leaf hit McWashington for a 6-yard gain to give the Cougars a fresh set of downs.
After another UCLA timeout and a Black 2-yard run, the Cougars faced a second and eight. This time, Price called the post to McWashington that he originally intended on the previous third down, and it worked to the tune of a 25-yard gain.
"That one might have been when destiny was involved because the safety had a pretty good bead on the ball," Levenseller said of the 25-yard play. "It was a post on play action, and he fell down."
"The biggest reason that it worked is that we had the old turf at Martin Stadium," McWashington said. "The safety would have been in position, but he slipped, and I just jumped up, made the catch, and that was the game."
As time ran down on that Saturday afternoon, Leaf hugged lineman Jason McEndoo to begin the victory celebration. It would be the first of many post game celebrations for the Cougars in 1997.
"It was an epic battle; we played them tough all the way to the end," Leaf said. "Luckily for us, we had a tremendous defensive stand at the end of the football game."
"I thought we would be special after that game," Price said. "That was a pretty good team. I figured right then we will be a special team."
But there were the USC Trojans, and history, to conquer two weeks later.
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