By virtue of a shocking, triple-overtime loss to Washington two weeks earlier, the 9-2 Cougars needed to win this game of scheduling quirkiness (the final contest of the regular-season, in December, in Pasadena, against 7-4 UCLA) in order to smell the Roses for the second time in five years.
If everything went as planned, Washington State would return to this very same field in less than a month to take on Oklahoma.
And what was planned first was a little gadgetry.
|PHOTO GALLERY: A 33-shot look at the game can be found at bottom of this article|
The script on this sunny day in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains was for the Cougars to reach into Price's magic bag on their second offensive snap of the game.
Henderson, a senior receiver with an extraordinary record passing the ball, would catch a bubble screen behind the line of scrimmage and then turn and fire downfield to Bush, a fellow senior receiver.
The name of the play was Rip Double Pass.
The Cougs had practiced it since Henderson joined the program as a freshman in 1999, and they ran it at least twice per practice in the week leading up to UCLA.
But there was one fly in the ointment of this perfect plan. And that was Henderson himself.
In his four years at WSU he had become so adept at passing the ball when the opposition least expected it that he probably holds an NCAA record of some kind.
In four seasons, he completed 11 of 12 throws for 499 yards and six touchdowns. The only incompletion was two weeks earlier, against Washington, when the snap on a Cougar field goal try went awry and Henderson, the holder, had to improvise and forced an incomplete pass.
COLLIN HENDERSON: The most accurate "quarterback" in WSU history.
So Price decided Henderson, a starter, would throw on the second play of the game, before his coming in and out of the huddle started raising awareness of his presence.
To help set up the play, Price called for senior running back John Tippins to run off left tackle on the first play of the series. This put the ball on the left hash for the second play, which create more space on the right side for the maneuverings of the looming trick play.
When the Cougs came to the line of scrimmage for that second snap, Casper, in the broadcast booth, commented that this might be the perfect time for the Cougs to try one of their patented Henderson passes.
Casper's a sharp guy, but forecasting that play call was straight from left field. Or so it may have seemed to the regional TV audience.
Henderson had tipped off Casper that morning, telling him he would "look like a genius" if he predicted the trickery on the air.
Even better for WSU, the Bruins switched from a cover 2 alignment to a single-safety look -- ideal for what the Cougs were about to do -- just as quarterback Jason Gesser started to call out the signals.
"We got the look we wanted," remembers Gesser. "All I had to do was make sure the pass I threw to Collin was a lateral."
Gesser took the snap from center Tyler Hunt, turned right, and threw a swing pass (laterally!) to Henderson, who had lined up in the slot and was running to his right.
This is where Bush, lined up on the outside, had to summons an Oscar-worthy performance to make the play work.
on Dec. 7, 2002
The corner bought it, and so did the safety.
Bush put on the brakes before actually making a block, turned up field, blasted the jets, and headed straight down the right sideline.
"I was afraid it was going to be overthrown, but he caught it right in stride," recalls Henderson, who now is a pharmaceutical sales representative with GlaxoSmithKline in the Seattle area and is married with a 5-month-old son.
"I probably threw the ball 30 or 35 yards in the air and Mike did the rest. This was the only pass in my career where I didn't get the laces, but I had to get rid of the ball fast ... it didn't matter because no one was near Mike."
In fact, Bush was so wide open that it was almost unnerving.
"Those are the passes that are hardest to catch, because you have time to think to yourself that this kind of thing just doesn't happen," Bush says. "It seemed like the ball was in the air forever."
As fate would have it, his family was sitting in that end zone and on that side of the field.
"My uncle took a picture of me running toward them, with the scoreboard in the background. I have it framed and sitting in our book case," he said.
The box score the next day simply read "Bush 66-yd pass from Henderson (Dunning kick)."
The reality was that the play was much more than a touchdown. The tone had been set. The game was 37 seconds old and WSU led 7-0 even though their star quarterback, wearing a specially designed protective boot on his right leg, was badly hobbled from the high ankle sprain he had suffered against the Huskies two weeks earlier.
JERMAINE GREEN TOOK ONE TO THE HOUSE FOR 80 YARDS.
The Cougars then reeled off 24-straight points. Gesser hit Devard Darling and Jerome Riley on 8- and 22-yard TD passes to put the Cougs up 21-14. Curtis Nettles recovered a fumbled kickoff at the UCLA 18-yard line to set up a 30-yard Drew Dunning field goal, and then Cougar running back Jermaine Green dialed up an 80-yard TD run to extend the lead to 31-14 with 48 seconds left in the first half.
A miscommunication on the subsequent kickoff essentially gave UCLA a free TD just before halftime. WSU's Adam Holiday thought he heard the call for an onside kick. Alas, he was the only Cougar in the building thinking that way and UCLA wound up with the ball on the WSU 39 and scored on the very next play to make it 31-21 at intermission.
The opportunistic Cougs put the game away in the second half. They sandwiched another Dunning field goal with an Adam Braidwood block of a Bruin punt to set up a 1-yard Tippins TD run and then sealed the deal with 10 minutes left when Erik Coleman picked off Drew Olsen and ran 25 yards for a TD.
Final score: 48-27.
Washington State was going to the Rose Bowl. Again.
DESPITE HIS IMMOBILITY, WHICH RESULTED IN 4 SACKS, GESSER STILL PASSED FOR 247 YARDS AND 2 TDs.
While badly hobbled, his mind was working overtime. Early in the game he noticed UCLA's defense frequently in an alignment he thought would be susceptible to a run play, called 14X, that the Cougs hadn't called since the start of the season.
"I asked our linemen if they remembered it, and we pretty much dialed it up right out there on the field," Gesser said. "It was an outside run that I thought would work well. Our second touchdown capped a 94-yard drive and close to half of the 10 plays we called were 14X."
By day's end, the Cougs racked up 541 yards of total offense with a quarterback who couldn't run.
Gesser told reporters after the game, "I'm feeling no pain right now." A photo of him clenching a rose in his teeth seemingly ran in every newspaper from Longview to Colville.
The reality of his work at UCLA on that sunny December day was that it was a minor miracle, coupled with a whole lot of grit, that he even played. Price put Gesser's showing into perspective when he told the gathered media the leg injury is so severe that it's only 50/50 Gesser will be able start in the Rose Bowl game 3 ½ weeks hence.
For Gesser, clinching the Rose Bowl was a culmination of people telling him what he could not accomplish in football, beginning as a youth on Honolulu to suffering through losing seasons, first while redshirting in 1998 and on through 2000 with the Cougars.
"To have everything rolled into one moment … we did it," Gesser said this week. "People have always said I can't do something and I prove them wrong 10 times over."
Henderson remembers it as the apex of hard work that began in 2001, when most of the team remained in Pullman during the summer, which was not typical at the time, in an effort to recapture the magic the program had enjoyed in 1997. That 2001 team also won 10 games. But its final stop was El Paso and the Sun Bowl.
This time it was going to be Pasadena and the Granddaddy of the Them All.
Because of an early kickoff time against the Bruins, the Cougs were back in Pullman around 7 p.m. that night. And the celebration really began.
"To see your peers and to share that was a really neat moment," Henderson.