In ’88 Rose Bowl, Perles’ gang ends Big Ten’s drought

MSU flashback

In ’88 Rose Bowl, Perles’ gang ends Big Ten’s drought

This column originally ran in the Detroit Free Press on Jan.2, 1988.

PASADENA, Calif. They had the ball! They had the ball! Todd Krumm was cradling it, dancing with it, raising it above his head and leaping into the arms of teammate Kurt Larson, and only gravity kept them from flying off into space. All the waiting, all the lean years, all the talk of Rose Bowl jinx – it was all crushed down and squeezed inside this little brown football, and now, Michigan State had it. God. At last.

“It was awesome! It was a relief!” Krumm would yell outside the locker room after Michigan State had stunned the disbelievers with a nail-biting 20-17 victory over Southern California in the Rose Bowl – the first time a Big Ten team has won it in seven years. Awesome? Relief? Tell us about it. Until that point – when Krumm recovered a Rodney Peete fumble with 1:37 left – destiny seemed sure to slip the Spartans a mickey.

Sure, they had played a powerful first half – an arresting display of rushing and defense – but like a tired runner, the Spartans’ energy seemed to fade. A 14-3 halftime lead slipped to 20-17, and USC was a dragon down the stretch. Hot? Ho boy. Peete was directing the Trojans to an heroic finish, as surely as if a California screenwriter had called for it.

And then, the most miraculous thing. With USC on the MSU 30, Peete called for the snap – and never got it. The ball bounced, players fell on it, Larson kicked it, and on two bounces it landed in Krumm’s waiting grasp, and damn if he was ever gonna let it go.

“Kurt was hugging me, but I wanted to hug him,” Krumm would say. And in the stands, MSU faithful were hugging one another. Was this incredible or what? They had the lead. They had one minute left. And they had the ball!

They had the ball!

“I’m still nervous, can you believe that?” coach George Perles said after it was all over, after his Spartans had survived one final threat by USC, and had watched the clock turn to 0:00 and ring in the New Year better than it ever did in Times Square. “This feels great. For us, for the Big Ten, for everybody.”

Raise your hand if you weren’t at least a little moved by this fairy tale.

That way we know who the dead people are. How long had all the parties waited for this? MSU hadn’t been to Pasadena in 22 years. The conference hadn’t won out here since 1981.

“What do you think about breaking the Big Ten jinx?” a reporter asked Perles.

“You’ve got to ask those other teams about the jinx,” he answered. “I like the Rose Bowl.”

I like the Rose Bowl? Too much. But then, this whole adventure was like that, this whole week of Spartans In Paradise. Here was the most unlikely of teams – nobody picked them to get this far – a group of nice, quiet, muscular guys coached by a ruddy-faced, basso-voiced man who said, “Hey, I don’t care how Michigan and Ohio State did it. We’re going to Disneyland and we’re going to enjoy the hell out of it.”

Yeah.

And the game? Oh my. This was a lifetime in one afternoon. Sunlight to darkness, warmth to cold, a lead to a tie to a glorious victory that was not assured until the final snap. How much older was everyone when this thing ended? Ten years?

“It felt like the second half went on forever,” admitted quarterback Bobby McAllister, who provided the most acrobatic play of the afternoon, scrambling to the sidelines, directing traffic, then leaping as he reached out of bounds and connecting on a 36-yard miracle to Andre Rison – a play that led to the winning field goal. He leaped? He threw it in mid-air?

“What do you call that?” he was asked.

“I call it …”

He laughed.

“I call it, ‘make something happen.'”

Perfect. Because that’s what MSU needed. That pass – and another earlier bomb to Rison of 55 yards – kept the otherwise slow-grinding MSU offense from running out of steam. It was just one of countless memories for a Spartan scrapbook:

Here was a brilliant display of labor by Lorenzo White, who carried 24 times in the first half alone for 89 yards and two touchdowns. The quiet senior tailback, who had been denied the Heisman Trophy, played those first 30 minutes as if they might cast the award in his image next year. He finished with 113 yards, and more importantly, a victory in his last game. “We won, I’m done,” he said. A pretty and effective final rhyme.

And from the rhyme to the reason: defense. Percy Snow. Sophomore linebacker. Seventeen tackles, 15 unassisted. If you’re looking for a single reason for victory this day, you can start with his number. Despite its third-quarter drowsiness, the MSU “Gang Green” defense – its forte all year – was a steel drum when it had to be. That’s how you win big games.

What else? Lord. Who can remember it all?

And finally, an MSU victory. Beautiful.

Mitch Albom chronicles amazing victory over USC

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