They are the Pac-10 co-champs, on their way to Pasadena, but when they walk past a mirror, they see a motley band of renegades and rejects, spurned by other schools and scoffed at by the national media. Many of them say they chose to attend Washington State for a simple reason: No one else wanted them. Some had a better chance of spending four years in the state pen than at Penn State, while others were simply not big or strong or smart enough to play for a top program.
So they ended up in Pullman. Coach Mike Price held out his arms and, like Lady Liberty, took in the poor, the wretched, the Prop 48s. He told them they could be themselves, wear their earrings and tattoos proudly, and he assured them they would play a wild brand of football. He told them they would take on the world, and they swallowed it whole and asked for more.
Much of this, of course, was pure nonsense—and pure genius. When you are operating out of a small (pop. 24,650), sleepy burg in a state consumed by Husky-mania, you need an edge, and Price went with the oldest one in sports: Check it out, boys. They hate us. They're looking down on us. They don't respect us. Let's show them.
With its 41-35 victory over Washington in Seattle last Saturday, Washington State (10-1 overall, 7-1 in the Pac-10) earned a share of the conference championship (with UCLA and, possibly, Arizona State, which has a game left to play) and its first Rose Bowl invitation in 67 years. But give Price a couple of days. He'll have his players believing that they were snubbed again. The invitation never arrived. They will be forced to crash the Rose Bowl party and prove to the world once more that the Cougars are for real.
Before the sweat from their historic victory was dry, the Washington State players were rehearsing their New Year's Day lament: No one thinks we can beat Michigan. "I expect to be 20-point underdogs," said senior defensive tackle Leon Bender.
"Let's face it: We still get no respect around the country," said junior quarterback Ryan Leaf. "[ ESPN's] Beano Cook and those guys said UCLA was going to the Rose Bowl. Well, UCLA can come and watch the game if it wants—if it can get tickets."
If the Cougars are the Pac-10 version of the Mean Machine from The Longest Yard, Leaf is perfect as the Burt Reynolds character. A burly (6'5", 238 pounds), brash 21-year-old from Great Falls, Mont., Leaf isn't just the heart and soul of the Washington State team but also the mouth. You want attitude? Leaf has so much attitude, he has to check it when he travels. How good is he? Almost as good as he thinks he is, which is to say spectacular. (Quick Evergreen State joke: What's the difference between God and Ryan Leaf? God doesn't think he's Ryan Leaf.)
But Leaf can't be accused of bragging, because he keeps backing it up. During the last foray of his long-shot Heisman Trophy campaign, he completed 22 of 38 passes for 358 yards and two touchdowns against Washington. Then he exploded in celebration, jumping around the field like a man on fire before dropping to the turf near midfield, overcome with emotion. "Something just came over me and brought me to my knees," he said.
It certainly wasn't the Huskies' defense. After a scoreless first quarter Leaf settled into a groove and made Washington's defenders look as if they had spent their practice week preparing for the single wing. Despite three sacks, the Huskies didn't hit Leaf nearly enough, and when they did, he seemed to enjoy it. (The NFL should take heart. The league is suffering from a bad case of the Billy Joes, a terrible affliction in which entire Sundays are marred by hideous quarterback play. But Leaf is coming, and the citizens of Pro Football Nation will adore him.)
The Cougars were successful on an amazing 13 third-down tries, including a third-and-27 with less than a minute to go in the first half. Leaf hit senior wideout Shawn Tims over the middle for 29 yards, knocking the wind out of Husky Stadium. "We're always one big play from breaking open the game," says Leaf. "It doesn't matter if we turn the ball over or go three plays and out. We've got the worst memory out there. We forget all that stuff and expect to break the game open the next time we're on the field."