No debate: Mich. Rose to occasion

January 02, 1998|By John Eisenberg

PASADENA, Calif. -- There should be no debate this season.

Michigan deserves college football's No. 1 ranking after completing an undefeated season with a 21-16 victory over Washington State yesterday in the Rose Bowl.

The Wolverines didn't dominate, by any means -- Washington State was 26 yards away from a winning touchdown at the final gun -- which means there'll be plenty of lobbying for Nebraska if the Cornhuskers hammer Tennessee tonight in the Orange Bowl to finish with an undefeated record like Michigan, and in coach Tom Osborne's final season, no less.

But none of that should matter.

The evidence in support of Michigan is stronger.

Just as the evidence in support of Nebraska was stronger when the Cornhuskers and Penn State both finished undefeated three years ago, and Nebraska was voted No. 1 in the polls by a wide margin.

What goes around comes around, 'Huskers.

Michigan didn't need any game-winning miracles this season, and Nebraska did, and that's the difference.

The Cornhuskers were set to lose at Missouri in November when their quarterback threw a fourth-down pass that ricocheted off one receiver's leg and was caught by another for a tying touchdown, setting up an overtime victory that was unforgettable, to say the least.

But it also was a lucky victory, to say the least.

Michigan didn't need such luck in the course of its undefeated season.

We have to find some reason to rank one team ahead of the other, and, well, that's a pretty good one.

Let's call it Michigan's Luck-Free National Title.

Not that that's the only reason the Wolverines are deserving of their first national title in 50 years.

They beat six bowl teams during the regular season, two more than Nebraska.

They played "real" nonconference opponents such as Colorado, Baylor and Notre Dame, while Nebraska played super lightweights Akron and Central Florida.

It just wouldn't be fair for them to finish the season ranked No. 1, win the Rose Bowl and lose the title.

And please, don't underestimate the quality of that Rose Bowl win yesterday.

They barely won, but that doesn't mean they didn't give a championship-caliber performance.

You don't have to win in an awesome, showboating blowout to prove your worth as a No. 1.

Their opponents yesterday didn't come in with a lot of hype or history behind them -- Washington State was making its first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years -- but the Cougars were anything but a soft touch, having dominated the Pac-10 conference with a wide-open offense averaging 42 points.

Don't underestimate what it meant to dominate the Pac-10, which went 5-1 in bowls this year. That was a strong league, and State won it.

Led by quarterback Ryan Leaf, the Cougars rolled up single-game point totals of 77, 63 and 58, and never scored fewer than 24.

Yesterday, against Michigan's defense -- No. 1 in the country -- the Cougars scored by far their fewest points of the season.

"Anytime you take a team scoring as much as they were and hold them to what we did, you have done a good job on defense," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said.

Leaf still threw for 331 yards, but he completed less than half of his attempts (17 of 35) and was kept off balance by a steady rush and frequent blitzes.

Pressure on Leaf led to the key play of the game, a second-quarter interception by Charles Woodson, Michigan's Heisman Trophy-winning cornerback.

The Cougars were up by a touchdown and on the verge of scoring again when Leaf was forced out of the pocket. Rolling to his left, he threw across his body and into the end zone, and Woodson made the interception.

Michigan took the ball and drove to a tying touchdown.

"That was huge," Washington State coach Mike Price said. "We had a chance [to take a solid lead], but we didn't capitalize, and you're in trouble when you don't capitalize against a disciplined, consistent team."

State did come back to take a 13-7 lead midway through the third quarter, but the Wolverines responded as a No. 1 team should, with touchdown drives of 80 and 77 yards, resulting in a 21-13 lead.

Quarterback Brian Griese was brilliant, converting five straight third downs into firsts.

"They made the plays they had to make, which is the sign of a national champion," Price said. "They'll get my vote [for No. 1], no matter what happens [in the Orange Bowl]."

Not that Washington State just folded. Leaf led a comeback that consisted of a field goal and a last-gasp drive aborted by a debatable call -- the last two seconds ran off the clock in a hurry as Leaf took a snap and spiked the ball at Michigan's 26.

"No way does it take two seconds to do that," Price said. "I thought that was an official's mistake, personally. We still would have had to go out and make the play. But it would have been nice to try."

OK, so Michigan's national title wasn't entirely free of luck.

But that little dose was nothing compared with Nebraska's Immaculate Reception.

The Cornhuskers will try to downplay the importance of that if they win big tonight, which they probably will.

Superior talent, more big-game experience and the emotion of Osborne's final game should carry them, leaving them undefeated and staking a claim to No. 1.

You can't blame them for trying after going undefeated, but it just isn't their turn.

Michigan -- smart, disciplined and long on defense -- is the right call for No. 1 this year.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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