Warren Moon Looks Back at '78 Rose Bowl

QB Warren Moon (UW Media Relations)

Let's set the scene. It was 1978 and Washington was 1-3 after their first four games. To make matters worse, some Husky players had just been caught staying out late after bed check by the coaching staff.

In the wake of a brutal loss from another last-second field goal, the Husky captains got together and felt like the team wasn't unified and serious enough. They decided that a team meeting was in order. Team captains Warren Moon, Blair Bush, Mike Rohrbach and Dave Browning got before the Husky squad and implored them that they were entering conference play; their record was 0-0 and they still could win the Pac-8 title.

Generated from this meeting was a needed spark! The players felt suddenly a sense of urgency and unity. The team went down to Eugene and that newfound purpose showed itself in a 54-0 thrashing of the Oregon Ducks. Don James ran out the clock by having his backup QB take a knee at the Duck 1-yard line. The season was back on course.

"…And after that, the rest was history," said Warren Moon, in a recent interview with Dawgman.com.

Moon's story at Montlake was one of strenuous lows and stratospheric highs. When he transferred in as a sophomore in 1975, new coach Don James named him the starter and this was widely unpopular with many fans and some media. Moon at times struggled horrifically, including one time where he threw out of bounds to stop the clock… on 4th down. Sometimes the Husky stadium atmosphere was dense with boos, and everyone wondered if Don James and his young quarterback were the right people to be leading the floundering program.

But Washington rolled through the final seven games in 1977, including a 28-10 trouncing of powerful USC in Husky Stadium. Alas, the Huskies finished at 7-4 and captured the Rose Bowl berth against a 10-1 Michigan powerhouse.

Washington was returning to Pasadena for the first time in 14 years.

The Wolverines were 14-point favorites and did little to hide their disdain in playing the four-loss Huskies. Warren Moon described his experience leading up to kickoff.

"I had all kinds of reflections of where we had been as a program, there had been some real tough times. I knew it was going to be that way when I went up there (to Washington). But going into the Rose Bowl we really felt like we could compete with anybody in the country, especially after the way we handled USC."

Moon talked about Michigan's utter lack of respect for the Huskies.

"When both teams were at Disneyland, they made it clear that they wanted to have very little to do with us. Rick Leach (UM's quarterback) refused to pose with me along with Mickey and Minnie Mouse, as was the tradition for the quarterbacks. I found out later that he had done that once or twice before, that he thought it distracted him from concentrating on the upcoming game… But especially at the time, it all served as extra motivation for us to prove ourselves."

To start the game, Michigan drove to the Husky 38, but then was forced to punt. A bad snap resulted in the downing of the punter at the Husky 49, and the Dawgs took over. With a balanced offensive game plan, Washington drove right down the field and scored on a Moon rollout around left end, to open up a 7-0 lead.

By early in the third quarter, Warren Moon had dropped back to pass and hit Spider Gaines on a corner route in the back of the end zone to give the Huskies a stunning 24-0 lead.

Kurt Gowdy was beside himself as he called the action on television, the upstart team from the Pacific Northwest clobbering the Midwest giant.

On the corner route, Moon recalled a near disaster. "Spider slammed into the wall and was down for a minute. I was more concerned for his well being than anything else, until I saw that he was OK. We were really outplaying them at that point, though we had kept them off-balance with a few things we normally didn't do. We ran a couple of reverses, and we ran a fake punt… I didn't even know the fake was on at the time. I had just come off the field was drinking a cup of water and suddenly I'm back in the game again."

The fake punt Moon referred to was a surreal stroke of choreographed perfection. Husky punter Aaron Wilson was back in formation and took a clean snap, pausing for a moment as Michigan's powerful rush drew toward him, before stepping forward and flinging a perfect pass downfield to a WIDE open Kyle Stevens, who hauled in the catch and set off to zipping and darting through traffic before finally being corralled deep in Michigan territory. The gain was good for 60 yards! In game film the Huskies had seen a weakness in Michigan's punt return team, and Don James had practiced this play obsessively to exploit it in the Rose Bowl.

Following Spider Gaines' subsequent catch and crash into the wall, Michigan struck like lightening. The Huskies had a breakdown in coverage and UM's Curt Stephenson was wide open in the secondary. Rick Leach hit him for a 76-yard strike, and the lead was suddenly 24-7.

As the Wolverines rolled to another and close to within two touchdowns, the Huskies began to bend hard.

Then with 4:00 left in the game, Rick Leach scrambled to avoid pressure and threw a 32-yard TD strike to Stanley Edwards. The Huskies blocked the extra point, but the lead was now a harrowing 27-20.

Michigan stuffed the Huskies and got the ball back. With little resistance Michigan drove powerfully to the Washington 8-yard line. It was 1st and goal, and there was 1:29 left to play in the game. By now it was nightfall at the Rose Bowl. With the stadium lights, national TV cameras and 105,312 frenzied spectators looking on, the nervous anticipation weighed heavily upon the field of play.

Then came perhaps the biggest play of the early James Gang era, and it came courtesy of his big time local recruit out of Pasco, Washington.

Leach took the snap and rolled right. He dumped it out into the flat to Stanley Edwards. The Michigan running back's momentum was heading toward the orange pile on of the end zone. But as he was reaching back and grappling for the pass, Husky linebacker Michael Jackson came over top of his shoulder pads and wrested the ball free, before falling to the ground with possession. Husky ball, Michigan drive snuffed.

The Husky sideline erupted and half of the players ran onto the field. But there was still 1:21 left to play, and Washington coaches frantically corralled all their players back to the sideline.

Michigan was a valiant foe and was going to rage against the dying of the gridiron light.

Washington was stuffed and the Wolverines used their timeouts. Michigan got the ball back at the Husky 48. With 0:38 left to play, Leach threw deep toward the end zone. Husky Defensive back Nesby Glasgow made a spectacular stretching leap and picked off the pass. The jubilant Husky sideline again partially overflowed onto the field, but now all that was left was for Warren Moon to do was take a snap and kneel down, and let the clock expire.

With the game over, it was a scene of happy chaos on the field. Humanity swarmed in all directions. Warren Moon was searching…

"I was looking for my family, they were hard to find at first", said the former Husky QB with a laugh. "But I did find them. It was very, very special that they could be a part of that with me. They had been so supportive through everything I had been through.

"I also looked for the guys I was close to… Michael Jackson, Nesby Glasgow, Antwoine Richardson, Ronnie Rowland… It was a tremendous moment."

In the locker room came another great moment from someone usually not prone to emotion. "Don James came over to my locker, hugged me and said "good job", said Moon.

"… He was the main reason I went to UW. He seemed really down to earth, and like someone whom I could trust… He really went to bat for me (when times were tough). He always felt I was the best at that position and stuck by me".

Now, some twenty-five years later, through all the CFL Gray Cup Championships and record-setting years in the NFL, Warren Moon still feels the reverberations of that Pasadena classic.

"When I travel around the country, I still have people come up to me and tell me that that Rose Bowl was one of the best games they ever saw. It was the type of game a Rose Bowl should be."
Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com.

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