You envision it unfolding the way it was supposed to --- perfectly, spectacularly.
There's Chris Jackson leaping high at the back of the end zone to pull down Ryan Leaf's last and greatest Cougar pass. Or maybe Shawn McWashington nabbing a Leaf bullet at the three and dancing untouched into Palouse lore. Or perhaps Kevin McKenzie wrestling for the ball at the goal line with Charles Woodson and then plunging into history.
But alas, Washington State's improbable date with destiny came to a halt 26 yards short of the perfect ending, victimized by a referee's poor judgment.
Oh sure, even if that would-be final play had gotten off, what are the odds it would have resulted in the Touchdown-Heard-‘Round-the-World?
We'll never know. And therein lies the beauty of the game. The 1998 Rose Bowl, you see, will be remembered not as a Cougar loss and Michigan national title. It will be remembered for that incomplete ending. The Cougars didn't lose -- the clock simply ran out on them. This clash of champions will be forever colored with controversy and conjecture -- especially conjecture, that wonderful world of "what-might-have-been?"
With Leaf in the equation, the intrigue is enough to put a smile on your face for decades to come. A regular old loss just wouldn't carry that kind of everlasting, positive impact.
Heck, this was no defeat. This was one of our finest hours. This was a game -- and team -- for the ages.
As testament, you needed only to look around the stadium at game's end. The 56,000-plus throng of Cougar fans didn't head for the exits. They stayed put, cheering their hearts out. They gave their team a standing ovation.
That's not to say the wouldas, couldas and shouldas won't linger for a long while. They will. If only Leaf's second quarter pass to McWashington in the end zone had been one finger-length lower. If only Michael Black (pictured above) hadn't gotten hurt -- or least not hurt so early in the game. If only Leon Bender had one more finger tip on Brian Griese's jersey during that maddening 11-yard escape in the fourth quarter. This truly was a game of inches.
But in the end, WSU's '97 season wasn't really about what happened at the Rose Bowl. Like Ulysses' odyssey to Ithaka, this was about the journey. Pasadena was the goal. And arriving there was our destiny. But the glory was in the long road of adventure and excitement that led to this elusive place.
Every Cougar gained much along the way. Win or lose on New Year's Day, Pasadena would not be the measure of the season. Pasadena gave us the marvelous journey. Without her beckon call, this trek of a lifetime wouldn't have happened at all.
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RYAN LEAF UNDER PRESSURE AT 1998 ROSE BOWL, WON MY MICHIGAN 21-16.