Granted, the field those other times was about 25 yards long and 10 yards wide, and for targets Little Joe had cinder block pilasters instead of receivers. Norm remembered how as a child Joe used to dress up in football pants and a jersey and play fantasy games in the walled backyard. The family could hear him chirping his signals—"Red 32! Red 32!"—and would watch from the windows as he ran and threw passes and flung himself onto piles of leaves. "Then he'd come inside," Norm recalled, "and say, 'Won the Rose Bowl.' "
On Jan. 2, after an eight-hour drive across the desert with his family in a borrowed motor home, Little Joe was home again in Mesa, met at the sidewalk by cheering neighbors and camera crews. He did not crow, "Won the Rose Bowl." Having been trained to be humble by his parents, Phillis and Joe, he mostly smiled and said thank you. Under his chin, two black lines of stitches testified to the hard shots he had taken in Pasadena.
If Germaine did not win the Rose Bowl by himself, he at least proved that leadership is not synonymous with swagger. He took the field for the first time with 5:30 to go in the first half and the score knotted at 7-7, Ohio State's touchdown having come on a nine-yard pass from Jackson to Boston, Arizona State's on an acrobatic but disputed catch by wide receiver Ricky Boyer on a 25-yard throw from Plummer. Germaine didn't announce his presence, however, until after the Sun Devils had taken a 10-7 lead on a third-quarter field goal. Then, with stunning swiftness, he covered 88 yards with a pair of strikes to senior wideout Dimitrious Stanley, the second of them a 72-yard catch-and-sprint for a touchdown. That play shocked the Arizona State side of the stadium but not Buckeyes fans, who had seen Germaine pass for 1,062 yards and 13 touchdowns this season in his backup role. "Joe Germaine is an unbelievably accurate quarterback," Ohio State cornerback Shawn Springs would say later. "If you don't have perfect coverage, he'll put it there every time."
Maybe so, but in a tight game the odds swing in favor of the side with the brand-name quarterback. That was Arizona State, which in Plummer had a leader with the presence and imagination of a Doug Flutie or a John Elway. Only 11 weeks before, in the same stadium, Plummer had contrived a come-from-behind victory over UCLA with three fourth-quarter touchdowns—throwing for one, catching a pass for another and running for a third. This time, against a much nastier defense, he got the ball with 5:36 remaining and again put on a display of his varied talents. On fourth-and-four at the Ohio State 37, he hung a gutsy fade pass down the left sideline; senior wide receiver Lenzie Jackson leaped to make the catch for a first down at the eight. Then, on third-and-goal from the 11, Plummer scrambled through tacklers and dived into the end zone to put the Sun Devils ahead 17-14 with 1:40 left. "I thought that was the ball game," Buckeyes freshman linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer, the only defender to get a hand on Plummer's jersey, would say later.
So whom do you turn to with 100 seconds left? The quarterback with the quick feet and the gung ho attitude? Or the quiet kid with the accurate arm and the butterfly bandages plastered over his chin?
Cooper chose composure over charisma. And if his offensive teammates are to be believed, Germaine—who hadn't run a game-winning two-minute drill since quarterbacking the Artichokes of Scottsdale C.C.—came to the huddle exuding confidence. "I could tell just looking at his eyes, he wasn't nervous," Boston said later. "I think he was working extra hard to show all of us that."
Two incomplete passes from the Ohio State 35 didn't panic Germaine, who on third down found a buttonhooking Stanley for 11 yards and a first down. After two more incompletions, Germaine hit Stanley again, for 13 yards, and then for 12 more, to the Sun Devils' 29. The next four Germaine passes ended up bouncing unheroically on the moist turf. Fortunately for Ohio State, officials flagged the Arizona State secondary twice for pass interference. With 24 seconds to go, the Buckeyes had first-and-goal at the five, and Germaine had his shot at glory or infamy, depending on which side of the continental divide one viewed it from. Boston feinted in on a slant—meant to clear out room for the primary receiver, Stanley—and then bounced outside to the right, wide open. Germaine rifled him the ball, and Boston, a freshman from Humble, Texas, took it into the end zone like a plane banking home.
There was, to be sure, a lot of yelling and 19 more seconds of football, but Germaine had already written the next day's headline: HOMETOWN BOY BEATS HOMETOWN TEAM. Later, standing on the field behind a row of thundering sousaphones—his helmet in one hand, the crystal MVP trophy in the other—Germaine seemed unaffected by the turn of events. "No, sir," he said to a reporter asking if he had noticed that Arizona State had changed cornerbacks at the end. "Yes, sir," he said to a microphone wielder who asked if it felt good to blur the memory of the Michigan loss.
Having dived into so many piles of leaves as a child, Germaine was used to seeing them scatter. The leaf that was John Cooper, for instance, was now soaring. Long derided for his purported inability to win the big one—at Ohio State he's 1-7-1 against Michigan, and until triumphing over the Sun Devils he was 1-6 in bowl games—Cooper left Pasadena with his second Rose Bowl win, the first having come in 1987 when he was coaching Arizona State.
The leaf that was Jake Plummer was, by contrast, crushed. Cooper stepped into the Sun Devils' locker room after the game and told a distraught Plummer, "I've never seen anybody play the game like you do."