The 1978 Rose Bowl was a coming out party for the Washington Husky program under Don James and for his quarterback, Warren Moon. It was a study in frustration for Michigan head coach Bo Schembecler, who couldn’t seem to find a way to win in Pasadena.
Washington wasn’t on anyone’s radar when the 1977 college football season began. The Huskies had not reached the Rose Bowl since 1963 and James had gone 11-11 his first two years in Seattle. They were unranked and then lost three of their four non-conference games to start the season, none to a team that would finish with any more than seven wins.
When Pac-8 play began, it was a like a switch flipped. After a 54-0 win over lowly Oregon, Washington hosted Stanford. The Cardinal were coached by Bill Walsh and their own quarterback, Guy Benjamin, would share conference Player of the Year honors with Moon at season’s end. Moon outgunned him 45-21 in this game.
The Huskies edged lowly Oregon State and lost 20-12 to conference contender UCLA. On November 5, Washington went to Berkeley to face 17th-ranked Cal. Moon’s offense unleashed again and won 50-31. They were set to host USC on November 12 and winning the Pac-8 was amazingly on the table.
Washington’s offense was more than Moon. Joe Steele and Ron Gipson provided a balanced rushing attack, and the passing game was targeted to receiver Spider Gaines and tight end Scott Greenwood. Blair Bush, who played 17 years in the NFL, was at center. But compared to other programs that would make it to the major bowl games, the Huskies weren’t dotted with All-Americans through the lineup.
What the Huskies were doing was peaking at the right time, something that could not said be said for Southern Cal, who had been undefeated and ranked #1 as late as October, but was fading fast, and now down to #14. Washington facilitated the decline, with the first big win of the James era, 28-10. They were tied for first, and finally in the polls, at #19.
Washington closed the season by winning the Apple Cup rivalry game against Washington State. The Huskies then had to wait six days. They had clinched a share of the league title, but UCLA could still clinch the other half and take the Rose Bowl bid on the tiebreaker. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the Bruins lost to USC and Washington was outright champs and going to Pasadena.
Michigan wasn’t going to sneak up on anyone. They had gone to the Rose Bowl in 1976 and were ranked #2 in the country to start the season. They would get All-American seasons from linebacker John Anderson, guard Mark Donahue and center Walt Downing. They had a 1,000-yard rusher in Russell Davis and Harlan Huckleby tacked on over 700 more. Rick Leach was good enough to get by with at quarterback.
After beating Illinois 37-9 to start the year, Michigan was elevated to the top of the polls when #1 Oklahoma struggled to get by Vanderbilt. The Wolverines then struggled themselves, in beating Duke and Navy, and were moved down to #3 when they hosted Texas A&M on October 1.
The Aggies were ranked fifth, and would finish the season behind only undefeated Texas and Orange Bowl-bound Arkansas in the old Southwest Conference. Michigan took Texas A&M apart. Davis rushed for 110 yards and Leach had 216 all-purpose yards. Ron Simpkins was everywhere on defense, with 14 tackles and the linebacker helped punctuate the 41-3 win in the fourth quarter when he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown.
Michigan then beat a pretty good Michigan State team 24-14. The Wolverines buried #14 Wisconsin 56-0, and the Badgers plummeted to a sub-.500 record. Michigan was back to the top of the polls and controlled their fate for a national title.
One year earlier, Michigan had been in this same situation and they were upset by Purdue. This time it was Minnesota that did the deed. The Gophers, the only conference team besides Michigan and Ohio State to make a bowl game, pulled a 16-0 upset in the Twin Cities and the Wolverines fell to #6.
Schembecler’s team came back strong, rolling through Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue and scoring 63 points in each of the latter two games. Michigan was set to host Ohio State in the season-ending finale. The Buckeyes had a share of the conference crown already sewn up, but the Wolverines would take the other half and the tiebreaker with a win.
Michigan won with red-zone execution. In the first three quarters-plus, Ohio State got down inside the 20 three times, but came with just two field goals. Michigan got touchdowns on its trips and led 14-6 when the Buckeyes launched one more drive. They had 1st-and-goal on the Michigan 8-yard line and the Wolverines needed one more red zone stop.
A tie was as good as a loss for Michigan, and Anderson came up with the big play. He forced a fumble, the Wolverines recovered and the 14-6 win was secure. They had been outgained 352-196, but were going to the Rose Bowl ranked fourth in the nation.
By the time the traditional late-afternoon kickoff arrived, the national title picture had been thrown into chaos. Top-ranked Texas, the only unbeaten team in the country, had been crushed by Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Michigan was a part of a group of one-loss teams that could stake a claim with a decisive win.
Only it was Washington came out ready to play. They built a 27-7 lead, keyed by Moon going 28 yards over the top to Gaines. Michigan came roaring back, closed to 27-20 and got inside the red zone in the closing minutes. But a diving interception by linebacker Michael Jackson preserved the upset win.
Washington finished #10 in the country. Moon, after first going to the Canadian Football League for six years, had a productive NFL career, primarily with the old Houston Oilers. Schembecler had three more years to wait for that elusive first win in Pasadena.