January 2, 1998

Star Quality Has A Griese Kind Of Look

John Blanchette The Spokesman-R
 

The first one to say, “Just Wait ‘Til 2065” gets a poke in the eye with a sharp thorn.

For the 40 days and nights since the Apple Cup, Washington State has not been the school at the end of the world, but the one on top of it. Earth reluctantly returned to its axis on Thursday and the world may be safer because of it - but surely not as much fun.

Boring old Michigan is the national champion, or should be.

Wild old Wazzu has been bridled.

The 84th Rose Bowl began with thousands of fans still bottlenecked in the stadium tunnels, having grudgingly and belatedly dragged themselves away from the hospitality compound - proving, perhaps, that you can lead a Coug to the Rose Bowl but you can’t make him put down his drink.

It ended with Ryan Leaf first trying to spike the football and then restraining himself from spiking the referee.

In between, Brian Griese at least did his old man proud, if not one better.

He was not the quarterback you expected to win the Rose Bowl with his arm - surely not the quarterback the Cougs expected to win it - but win it he did, 21-16, all of Michigan’s points attributable to his execution, his delivery, his savvy.

There were a sackful of other reasons, too - the Cougs’ inability to get a third-down stop in the second half, Michael Black’s injured calf, the Michigan blitz that left Leaf as vulnerable as a dog trying to cross I-5 blindfolded, the dizzying number of drops that early on had the Fab Five looking like the Flub Five.

All legit.

“But in order for them to win, he had to win it,” insisted Cougars defensive end Leon Bender, his eyes crimson from crying. “And he stepped up like a champion.” Funny, but this champion has devoted much of his energy to stepping back.

“I never wanted to be in the limelight - the all-star quarterback,” he said. “I just wanted to be part of this team, part of something special. I didn’t receive the publicity and I didn’t want it. I was glad to stay in the shadows of a Ryan Leaf and just play my game.

“And today, my game was on top.” Maybe over the top.

The long touchdown throws - 53 and 58 yards - to Tai Streets were possible not just because Streets outran the Cougar corners, but because Griese put the ball on the money both times. The winning score to Jerame Tuman didn’t require the same touch, but it worked because of a solid sell on the play-action fake and a veteran’s read.

Those were the big moments. There were scads of little ones, including a scramble on third down when he avoided a beheading from WSU’s Dorian Boose.

“We said going in he’s a smart quarterback,” admitted WSU defensive coordinator Bill Doba. “When you look at video and they run a three-level route and there’s three guys there, he always throws to the right guy.

“He made some hellacious plays. The scramble on third-and-11 broke our backs. He stood in there sometimes and got hit in the mouth and let it go. And he threw some hitches and 90s he hadn’t thrown all year. He just threw the ball better than I thought he could.”

The pedigree was never a question. Brian Griese had that.

Daddy won a Rose Bowl himself 31 years ago - Purdue 14, USC 13 - and then won a Super Bowl handing off to Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick 700 times one Sunday in January. Now Bob Griese is the least impartial broadcaster in the land - next to Paul Sorensen, of course - but never has to alibi for it because his son always shines whenever ABC plugs in its cameras.

But what Brian Griese had to do, time and again, was prove himself - first as a walk-on freshman, and this year as a walk-back-on grad student.

“He is a football player,” said Leaf. “A walk-on? He’d make a hell of a Pac-10 quarterback. He threw the ball unbelievably today. I think you saw the better quarterback on the field today in maize and blue.”

Today, Leaf will do an anti-Griese and walk away - quite properly declaring himself available for the NFL draft. If he didn’t go out with the glory Griese was allowed to enjoy, he did it with every bit as much courage and class.

And he left his legion with a delicious and not totally irrelevant what-if.

With 29 seconds left, no timeouts and 93 yards of real estate between Wazzu and this destiny everybody’s been talking about, Leaf got the Cougars close with one bold, gallant stroke - a hope-he-do rainbow to Nian Taylor. Then, Leaf’s toss to Love Jefferson and Jefferson’s lateral to Jason Clayton, who took the ball to the Michigan 26, gave the Cougs hope. But before Leaf could get the clock stopped with a spike, referee Dick Burleson called it a night.

Hearts stopped all the way around.

“Shortest 2 seconds I’ve ever seen in my life,” sighed WSU coach Mike Price.

“I had flashbacks to the Colorado game (in 1994) when they were throwing that Hail Mary,” Griese said. “I was just praying.”

“I looked at the eyes of everybody in the huddle,” said Leaf, “and knew if I could get the ball to the end zone, our receivers had been making plays the whole second half. We all felt we could win.”

Some still feel they should have.

“It will take me a lifetime to get over this,” said Bender. “I’ll never get a chance to play for Washington State again. Never get a chance at the Rose Bowl. They’ll get other chances, but I won’t and that hurts. We set out to shock the nation.”

They’ll have to settle for administering shock therapy to a whole culture - the Cougar Culture - which cannot wait another 67 years for another party like this.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review


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