Michigan mission: Get to Leaf No. 1 Wolverines know title chance rests on pressuring Cougars QB

January 01, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PASADENA, Calif. -- The top-ranked Michigan Wolverines are one victory away from their first national championship in 50 years, but coach Lloyd Carr has spent the past week trying to keep his team's eyes off the prize.

The 84th Rose Bowl may be for all the marbles, but the focus has been set firmly on finding a way to stop the high-powered offensive attack of No. 8 Washington State in the premier New Year's Day bowl matchup.

"I think there is a constant reminder," Carr said. "What I try to tell our players and coaches, that [the national title] is a side issue. We're here to play an outstanding football team in Washington State University. Our concentration has to be on the game and that team. If we get sidetracked, we're going to be in trouble."

They might be in trouble anyway. Michigan (11-0) is a solid favorite to defeat the Cougars (10-1), but the Pacific 10 has a nasty habit of upsetting high-profile Big Ten teams in the Rose Bowl, and the Cougars have a nasty offense that has averaged 42.5 points this year.

The Wolverines have to find a way to shut down All-America quarterback Ryan Leaf and Washington State's "Fab Five" receiving corps to complete an undefeated season and take home a national championship trophy that has not resided in Ann Arbor since 1948.

"When attacking a great quarterback, you like to get to him, like to hit him," Carr said. "But the problem is they employ an offense based on getting rid of the ball -- three steps, and he's throwing. Lots of times, he knows where he's going with it before the ball is snapped, and -- bang! -- he throws the ball, and you don't get him. If we don't exert a pass rush, it's going to be a long day."

Michigan counters with one of the nation's best defensive teams and its best defensive player -- Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, who has made a name for himself turning the tables on some of the best quarterbacks in college football. But, as Leaf confidently pointed out this week, even the best defensive back in the game can't be everywhere at once.

Of course, the Wolverines didn't get to the top of the national polls without moving the football themselves. Senior quarterback Brian Griese directs a balanced attack that averaged 201 yards per game through the air and 187 yards on the ground against a season's worth of formidable defensive opposition. Michigan averaged only 28 points per game -- far less than the explosive Cougars -- but played a much tougher schedule that was packed with defense-oriented Big Ten schools.

Washington State coach Mike Price is playing the underdog role for all it's worth, leaving no cliche unturned in an effort to keep the pressure off his team and lull the Wolverines into a false sense of security.

"I think it's a David and Goliath thing," Price said. "I just hope we have enough rocks in our sling."

Price agrees with Carr that the outcome of the game may depend on how much time his offensive line gives Leaf to throw the ball. If the Wolverines can pressure him with a four-man rush, Washington State could get pushed around all day. If not, the Cougars could score often and force Michigan to open up its offense.

"The best pass defense is the way you rush the passer," Price said. "I'm sure that Lloyd has something planned. He's been a defensive coordinator for a long time. I just want to make sure that we're as calm and confident as we have been before."

Confidence has never been a problem for Leaf, whose size and on-field presence could make him the top pick in the upcoming NFL draft if he decides to bypass his senior year. He is a brash, no-nonsense player who passed for 3,637 yards and 33 touchdowns and finished third in the Heisman balloting behind Woodson and Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning.

"He's had excellent practices," Price said. "He has his arm

strength back. If we can protect, we'll have a chance to move the football."

Perhaps the Cougars should just be happy to be here. They weren't picked to win the Pac-10 and certainly weren't expected to be in a position to make an argument for national championship consideration with an upset victory today. If this is the ultimate spoiler situation, Leaf wants none of it.

"We're not looking at it that way," he said. "We're trying to put ourselves in the national championship picture. I think we need to win, and Tennessee needs to win, and then me and Peyton will make it public that we want to share the national championship."

If they pull it off, they would be 11-1 with a season-ending victory over the top-ranked team, leaving Nebraska to go into tomorrow's Orange Bowl against Tennessee as the nation's only major undefeated team. But if Tennessee (10-1) wins, the Volunteers almost certainly would end up with the national title and the Wolverines would likely finish the season ranked fourth in the polls.

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