Rose Bowl history: 25 years ago, Heisman winner Charles Woodson was a star for Michigan Wolverines

Let’s face it, Charles Woodson in his college days was football’s version of baseball’s Shohei Ohtani.

Woodson helped his Michigan Wolverines to a 21-16 victory over Washington State in the 1998 Rose Bowl, starring on both sides of the line of scrimmage. It’s not surprising that following the regular season he became the only primarily defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy.

Charles Woodson (Associated Press file photo)

An outstanding defensive back, Woodson also returned punts and occasionally played receiver for the team that won the national championship with a 12-0 record.

But before Woodson could do his magic for the Rose Bowl game 25 years ago, there was a bit of comic relief.  Rose Parade Grand Marshal Carol Burnett, asked to toss the coin at midfield, warned the players and referees, “Stand back. I don’t want to hurt you.”

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She wasn’t exaggerating — her coin toss soared well over the players’ helmets, landing several yards away from the huddle.

“No injuries were reported,” noted Detroit Free Press writer Steve Crowe.

Once the game got underway, Woodson quickly demonstrated his versatility on both sides of the ball. The key play was in the first quarter with WSU already ahead, 7-0, and driving toward the end zone that could give Michigan an early deficit of two touchdowns.

But Woodson in the endzone put an end to that drive by intercepting a pass by quarterback Ryan Leaf.

“If they had scored, it really would have hurt us,” Woodson said afterward. “But it’s close to the end zone. I played him to run a shallow route, then Ryan Leaf threw me a nice wobbly pass.”

For the rest of the game, Leaf — who finished third to Woodson in the Heisman voting — never threw a pass anywhere near him.

The Wolverines had a narrow 21-16 lead in the fourth quarter and kept possession of the ball for a long stretch due to four straight third down conversions — two with Woodson’s help.

During that drive, Woodson got a lateral from quarterback Brian Griese and looked to throw a pass. But finding no receivers open, he took off, gaining the 8 yards needed for a first down. A few moments later, Woodson caught a 3rd-and-7 pass and carried it for another first down.

After Michigan punted the ball, a ferocious last-minute drive put together by Leaf began at the WSU 6. With two seconds left, the Cougars had reached the Michigan 26 but with no timeouts. Leaf attempted to spike the ball to set up a final play, but the officials ruled that time had run out. The game ended on that controversial decision.

Sweating out those last moments from about 5,000 miles away was Jim Staricco, perhaps the most intense Wolverine supporter not in the Rose Bowl that day. Living in Zurich, Switzerland, he reportedly was able to listen to the broadcast via Detroit radio station WJR, which on the surface seems a bit unlikely. It was his mother, in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., who made it happen by propping up her phone next to the radio so he could hear every play.

The Free Press noted it cost him about $100 in those pre-internet years, but it was a heck of a lot cheaper than flying from Europe to Pasadena.

This game had another first, or perhaps last, element. It was the final Rose Bowl played as part of the Pac-10/Big Ten arrangement. All games since have been part of the Bowl Championship Series.

This was also Woodson’s final collegiate game, leading to an 18-year pro career for the Oakland Raiders and the Green Bay Packers.

In 2017, Woodson was inducted in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. He also is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame.

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