When No. 1 Michigan entered the 1998 Rose Bowl, it had an undefeated 11-0 record and a Big Ten Championship title. The Wolverines were looking to capture their first national championship since 1948 and was led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson at cornerback, quarterback Brian Griese and tackle Jeff Backus.
No. 7 Washington State had a record of unprecedented success, going 10-1 in the regular season and winning the Pac-10. The Cougars were led by quarterback Ryan Leaf, an eventual second overall pick in the NFL Draft.
From the opening snap, Woodson dominated.
He immediately forced two hurried throws from Leaf, causing the Cougars to punt. In the second quarter, the Cougars seemed poised to score inside Michigan’s 20-yard line. However, Woodson snatched Leaf’s pass out of the air in the end zone to shift momentum back to the Wolverines. The stout defense sent the Wolverine fans into a frenzy over their first chance at a national title in 50 years.
But, Washington State ended up drawing first blood with a six-play, 47-yard drive that ended in a 15-yard strike from Leaf to wide receiver Kevin McKenzie. Michigan responded with a 53-yard bomb from Griese to wide receiver Tai Streets to level the score in the second quarter. The touchdown was set up by Woodson’s interception and pushed the first half score to 7-7.
After the Wolverines’ opening drive of the half was halted, they punted and pinned the Cougars on their own one-yard line. However, Leaf was not deterred. The first team All-American led Washington State the length of the field, ending in a 14-yard rushing score by wide receiver Michael Tinis. However, the extra point was blocked, leaving the score 13-7 in favor of the Cougars.
The back-and-forth nature of the game continued with Griese once again finding Streets for a long touchdown, this time from 58 yards, to put Michigan up, 14-13. Griese continued his stellar day with a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jerame Tuman in the fourth quarter.
Washington State managed to narrow the deficit to 21-16 with a 48-yard field goal from kicker Rian Lindell with just over seven minutes to play. The Wolverines ended up punting on their next possession, once again pinning the Cougars deep in their own territory.
Michigan appeared poised to win the game after two incompletions, but a desperate heave on third down by Leaf was caught by wide receiver Nian Taylor for a 46-yard gain with nine seconds remaining. Washington State was back in business. The Cougars edged closer to the end zone with a 36-yard gain off a “hook and ladder” that placed the ball at the Wolverines’ 16-yard line with two seconds left. Leaf ran up to the line to spike the ball and appeared to clock it with one second left. However, the clock kept rolling and the officials refused to add time, dashing the Cougars’ hopes of a comeback.
As Washington State coach Mike Price looked on in disbelief, the Michigan players rushed the field in celebration.
“There are no losers over here,” Leaf said after the game, proceeding to put a cigar in his mouth and take pictures with family and friends.
And in his third season, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr delivered the Wolverines’ first national title in 50 years on an undefeated 12-0 record.