By Jason Krump
As he saw his teammates gather on the Martin Stadium field, Mike Utley couldn't help but reminisce.
"You look back and say, `Man, it was all worth the blood, sweat, and tears we gave to each other.'"
It was fitting that Utley, the decorated offensive lineman who earned six separate All-America honors in that 1988 season, and members from the Washington State University Aloha Bowl team came together for a 20th reunion in early September.
It was the act of coming together that propelled the '88 edition to their ultimate success, a success whose seeds were sown a year earlier.
After four years at Idaho and a year at Wyoming, Dennis Erickson took over the helm of the program from Jim Walden in 1987.
The Cougars were productive offensively in 1987, but, done in by 38 turnovers, finished the year with a 3-7-1 record. Despite the record, Utley detected a silver lining.
"1n 1987 we were a good football team; we did not win, but the difference is that we physically beat people," he said.
The team would build on the '87 season heading into the summer.
"Looking back on it, it was a great summer," said wide receiver Tim Stallworth. "We stayed in Pullman; we had the notion that we wanted to have a good team that year. That was one of the goals."
As he entered his second season, Erickson had an experienced team with nine starters returning on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Among the offensive returners was quarterback Timm Rosenbach, who led the Pac-10 and was ninth in the nation in total offense at 249.4 yards per game. Rosenbach led a unit that finished fourth in the Pac-10 in total offense.
And it didn't take long for the offense to pick up where it left off.
In the season opener at Illinois, Rosenbach threw for 229 yards and running back Steve Broussard ran for a career-high 173 yards, as the Cougars rolled up 601 yards of total offense in their 44-7 dismantling of the Illini.
The Illinois win propelled WSU to a 4-1 start, the only blemish occurring in a 43-28 defeat to Oregon at Pullman. In its four wins, WSU outscored Illinois, Minnesota, Tennessee and California by a combined margin of 181-53.
Taking their 4-1 start to Tucson and Arizona, the Cougars held a 28-23 lead early in the fourth quarter only to see the Wildcats score 22 unanswered points to hand WSU its second loss of the season, 45-28.
The following week in Pullman, the Cougars enjoyed a 21-9 third quarter and 28-23 fourth quarter advantages over Arizona State, but once again let it slip away in a 31-28 loss.
Coincidentally, the Cougars scored 28 points in each of their three losses but, just like in 1987, were done in by turnovers. In the three losses, WSU committed a combined 10 turnovers.
Suddenly what was a 4-1 record was in jeopardy of becoming a .500 mark, and No. 1 UCLA was on the horizon.
Worse yet, the Cougars would be without the services of Broussard, who injured his ankle in the loss to Arizona State. Broussard had begun the season with six straight 100-yard rushing efforts and was averaging nearly 150 yards per game prior to his injury against the Sun Devils.
"We watched a lot of film and saw their tendencies and the things they wanted to do," Stallworth said of the Cougars' preparation for UCLA. "With Broussard hurt, Richie Swinton had to come in and fill some big shoes. We had the attitude that we were going to come out and play hard until the last whistle blew."
However, when the first whistle blew, matters seemed to go from bad to worse as WSU fell behind 20-6 at the half.
"I'd like to say I jumped up and down and was foaming at the mouth and all that, but really nothing," Erickson said of his halftime talk to his team. "The assistant coaches made some great adjustments on both sides of the football."
Utley remembers Erickson's talk a little differently.
"Coach Erickson, he had a few choice words to say to every position," he recalled. "Because he knew we were better than what we were playing.
"He came out and said, `these are the facts: You're better than they are.'"
The Bruins picked up in the second half where they left off in the first, by scoring. UCLA took the second half kickoff and promptly drove 71 yards for a touchdown to extend its lead to 27-6.
Then the fortunes of the game, and the season, changed for WSU.
It started when Rosenbach connected with Stallworth on a 15-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 27-13. Then, the defense forced and recovered a fumble, and the offense capitalized when Swinton ran it in from six yards out to pull the Cougars to within seven.
With 12 seconds left in the quarter, Rosenbach connected with Stallworth again, this time from 81 yards out. Stallworth caught Rosenbach's pass at the WSU 35, avoided a UCLA defender at the 50, and sprinted untouched the rest of the way for the game-tying score.
"When I came off the ball, I acted more like I was running a streak," Stallworth recalled of the 81-yard touchdown play. "When the defender turned his head, I cut to the left. That's when I saw all daylight, Timm made a great pass, and the rest is history."
UCLA retook the advantage at 30-27 just over three minutes into the final quarter, but Swinton's one-yard run with 6:21 left placed WSU ahead 34-30. Swinton, starting in place of Broussard, finished with 117 yards on 27 carries.
"We hit Stallworth early in the third quarter after they scored, then we hit him on the big play and just kind of controlled the game from there," Erickson said.
Overshadowed by the offensive outburst, the Cougar defense clamped down on Troy Aikman and the Bruin offense. After taking the lead, the Cougar defense made it stand, thwarting a pair of Bruin threats in the final minutes, including turning away UCLA from the six-yard line with 44 seconds left.
"The defense stopped breaking, they started only to bend," Utley said. "Once the defense stopped breaking, there it was.
"We left there beating the No. 1 team in the nation," Utley added. "We dominated that second half. There is no other team that was more dominant that Saturday than Washington State beating the UCLA Bruins."
Said Erickson, "Probably the greatest win in the history of my coaching career was when we beat UCLA.
"That was a special, special game."
WSU followed up the UCLA stunner by holding off Stanford at Palo Alto, 24-21, and disposing of Oregon State, 36-27, at Pullman.
At 7-3, the Cougars took more than the hopes of securing an eighth victory heading into the annual Apple Cup. They brought the hopes of a bowl game with them.
Temperatures at Martin Stadium that Saturday afternoon hovered in the mid-30s with a mixture of snow and rain falling.
"We were excited to play the game anyway because we wanted to beat the Huskies, but knowing we were playing for a bowl, that made it a little more exciting for us," Stallworth said.
"It was cold, raining, and snowing. It was Cougar weather."
It was also an experience of déjà vu for the Cougars, as, just like at UCLA, they fell behind early.
But also like at UCLA, the Cougars would come back.
Spotting Washington a 21-9 lead after the first quarter and 28-16 at the half, Washington State mounted a second-half comeback, highlighted by a fourth quarter blocked punt by Shawn Landrum.
With the Huskies ahead 31-26 and facing a fourth and five at their own 32, Landrum made not only the play of the game, but one of the most memorable plays in WSU Football history.
Jay Languein recovered the ball at the Washington 13-yard line with 10:42 remaining. On the ensuing possession, WSU faced a pivotal fourth and two at the five. Erickson decided to go for it, and Rosenbach rewarded his coach when he took it into the endzone to put the Cougars up 32-31.
The defense made the tenuous one-point lead stand. In fact, the defense thwarted Washington throughout the second half, limiting the Husky offense to one field goal and 93 total yards in the second half.
The reward for beating Washington was not only possession of the Apple Cup, but it also meant a berth to the Aloha Bowl, only the fourth bowl appearance in the program's history and the first since the 1981 team went to the Holiday Bowl.
"I had the feeling, `Ah, God that was great,'" Utley recalled. "At that point in time, Mike Utley made the right choice way back five years ago, signing that piece of paper and joining the Washington State Cougar family. I made the right choice."
For Utley, a trip to the Aloha Bowl signified more than a reward for just the 1988 season, it was for his entire collegiate career at WSU.
"All that hard work, blood, sweat, and tears that we had given for five years to Washington State, we finally got the team kudos of going to the Aloha Bowl," Utley said. "We were being rewarded with the chance to represent Washington State University, ourselves in the Aloha Bowl, and have a week of sunshine."
The Aloha Bowl would be played on Christmas Day, in the sunshine, in front of a nationally-televised audience, with WSU alumnus Keith Jackson calling the play-by-play for the ABC network.
The Cougars were matched-up against the Cougars . . . from Houston.
"We were at a luau and we talked about who the real Cougars were," Stallworth said. "We were saying how we were the real Cougars, and we would show it."
Unlike the UCLA and Washington games, WSU made sure not to dig itself a hole in Hawaii.
The Cougars did trail Houston 3-0 after the first quarter but then exploded for 24 second quarter points.
The second quarter scoring barrage started when wide receiver Victor Wood picked up a Broussard fumble and took it in five yards for a touchdown that put the Cougars ahead 7-3.
On their next possession, Wood caught a 15-yard scoring pass from Rosenbach to extend WSU's lead to 14-3.
After a Landrum interception of Houston quarterback Andre Ware, Jason Hanson kicked a 33-yard field goal and Rosenbach capped the scoring with a one-yard sneak to put WSU up 24-9.
WSU limited Houston to five first downs, 46 yards rushing, and 77 yards passing in the first half. The second half would be different as in a reverse from previous games, it was WSU that would hold off a late opponent rally.
Houston had cut its deficit to 24-22 and was driving late in the fourth quarter. With 2:44 left, Houston faced a second and five at WSU's 31-yard line. Quarterback David Dacus, who had replaced Ware, connected with receiver James Dixon; however, linebacker Tuineau Alipate also connected with Dixon, and forced a fumble that was recovered by Artie Holmes at the WSU five-yard line.
Rosenbach and the offense ran out the clock and secured the program's first bowl win since the 1916 Rose Bowl.
"It all snowballed in the victory against the Houston Cougars, being with families, meeting new people," Utley said. "That is what it was all about."
"It was a group that came together," Erickson said.
And, 20 years later, they came together once again on the Martin Stadium field.
"When we had the reunion on the field, seeing all of those guys coming back, you look back and say this was the right thing to do," Utley said. "The University allowed us to become educated, and allowed us to become men and become examples and role models in the community.
"That is what Washington State gave us. In return, we took the opportunity to play the game we love."
Note: For information on the Mike Utley Foundation please click HERE
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