SI Vault
Revenge of the Rejects
Gerry Callahan
December 01, 1997
Washington State's mighty misfits beat Washington to earn the Cougars' first Rose Bowl berth since 1931
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 01, 1997

Revenge Of The Rejects

Washington State's mighty misfits beat Washington to earn the Cougars' first Rose Bowl berth since 1931

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2

Once the folks on the Rose Bowl committee get used to all the pickup trucks and flannel shirts pouring in from Pullman, they probably won't mind seeing Washington State for the first time since the Hoover Administration. The wide-open Cougars offense, often featuring five receivers and no running backs, rang up 502.2 yards a game this season—second in the nation to Nebraska's 518.6. "We've got the best quarterback in the country, the best offense in the country and the most prolific offense in the history of the Pac-10," says Price. "How can you not want to watch us?"

Along with the coveted Apple Cup, which goes to the winner of Washington versus Washington State, Leaf last Saturday claimed the conference records for passing yards (3,637) and touchdown passes (33) in a season, and he accomplished that while talking a blue streak. At times he gets so jacked that he makes Richard Simmons look like Ted Kaczynski. Teammates, coaches, opposing players, refs, fans—someone is always getting an earful from Leaf. An hour after carving up the Huskies, Leaf was still dancing on the grave of his most despised rival. "You see that school we just beat?" he said. "The coaches there wanted me to walk on. I'm glad I didn't. I would have just lost today's game. I wouldn't be going to the Rose Bowl."

Leaf, in fact, is one of the few Washington State players who was heavily recruited by other major programs. Miami wanted him, but he made up his mind to sign with the Cougars on New Year's Day, 1994, when Price called during the Rose Bowl game between UCLA and Wisconsin. "He said, 'If you come here, we're going there,' meaning the Rose Bowl," said Leaf. "Right then I knew I was going to play for him."

The rest of the Cougars' stories aren't so simple. The squad includes six Prop 48 players (who were ineligible as freshmen), nine junior college transfers and two transfers from four-year schools. Star senior running back Michael Black (37 carries, 170 yards on Saturday) was incarcerated twice—and played on an inmates' football team—before finding refuge in Pullman. Five starters walked on. "We get a lot of players who are other people's rejects," said Price. "Most of our recruiting is taking a kid who was passed up by Washington and developing him into a kid who can compete with Washington."

Or perhaps kick Washington's rear end up and down its own field in the biggest game of the year. The Huskies had no answers for Leaf or the Fab Five, the Cougars' formidable receiving corps, which has adopted a typically humble nickname. None of the Fab Five (Tims, seniors Chris Jackson, Kevin McKenzie, Shawn McWashington and junior Nian Taylor) played wide receiver in high school. Now they are among the best pass-catching cliques in the country. How fitting is this Rose Bowl matchup: The Fab Five versus Michigan? Perfect.

Jackson, who had eight catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday, didn't even play football in high school. Washington State is his third college, the Cougars his second football team. On the Sunday before the game against Washington, Jackson let slip some serious bulletin-board material when he said, "I don't have much respect for the Huskies as players or people." The next morning Jackson awoke to an irate phone call from Price.

On Saturday, Price interrupted his post-Apple Cup press conference to call Jackson over. In front of a room full of reporters he asked for a hug. Jackson obliged. Later the 51-year-old Price was asked if he liked the diamond stud in Jackson's pierced nose. "I don't think I'll get one," he said, "but if that's what the kids want to do, it doesn't bother me. If they want to put tape on their shoes or pull up their socks, I don't care. You've got to get to know the kids and let them be themselves."

The Cougars will be themselves in Pasadena, which means they will be long shots once again: underdogs with an attitude, up against the world. Give Ryan Leaf one thing. God couldn't have laid it out any better.

1 2