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Entering 1997, the Washington State Cougars were eager to return to a bowl game after their impressive win in the 1994 Alamo Bowl over Baylor. While Ryan Leaf's remarkable performance during the 1996 season of throwing for 2,811 yards had Cougar fans optimistic, the media did not agree as it predicted Washington State to finish last in the Pacific-10 Conference.
When it comes to winning the first game of the season, the Cougars had fared well having won their opening game each of the last-five seasons prior to their Aug. 30, 1997 opener against UCLA.
Leaf threw for a career high 381 yards and three touchdowns and the Cougar defense made a courageous goal line stand late in the game as Washington State handed UCLA a 37-34 setback in the season and Pac-10 opener for both clubs before a crowd of 26,000 and a national ABC television audience.
UCLA jumped out to a 14-3 lead on a pair of Skip Hicks touchdown runs. Washington State roared back set up twice with a short field, once after a fumble recovery and the other following a blocked punt.
The Cougars held a 30-14 lead at intermission on the strength of 27-consecutive points in the first half. In the second half, Leaf connected with Chris Jackson for a 78-yard scoring strike that put Washington State on top 37-21.
After the Bruins pulled within 37-34, it was Washington State's defense that pulled through inside the three-minute mark to stop UCLA's fourth down rushing attempt only one yard from the end zone. The Cougars ran out the clock after Leaf connected with Shawn McWashington for a pair of key first down passes.
ABC's national telecast of WSU's battle with UCLA provided a homecoming of sorts for Keith Jackson, a 1954 graduate of WSU and for more than three decades ABC's voice of college football. While Jackson had returned to WSU many times and called the action of several WSU games shown by ABC, he never called a game from Pullman for ABC.
The Cougars' victory over the Bruins was the first of seven-straight to open the season and Washington State clinched its first Rose Bowl bid in 67 years with an 11-1 record, including a 7-1 mark in the Pac-10.
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