Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Snow hits Pasadena: Michigan State's last Rose Bowl

Michigan State linebacker Percy Snow was
the best player on the field in the 1988 Rose Bowl.
When Michigan State beat Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl, it marked the Spartans’ first appearance in the game since the 1980s – 1988 to be exact.

In 1988 it had been 22 years since Michigan State last appeared in the festival of roses, way back in 1966. The Spartans made the most of their experience too, led by a young, talented linebacker named Percy Snow.

The bowl game, 80s style
The 1987 season was highlighted by a battle between Oklahoma and Miami for college football supremacy. Beyond national championship aspirations, some teams also had the opportunity to participate in bowl games

The climate of college bowls was much different in 1987. Back then it meant something to qualify for a bowl game. Unlike today, where there are dozens and dozens of games named after the sponsoring companies, back then there was a handful of meaningful games, all played on New Year’s Day. It is funny though, that even back then we made fun of the fact there were all these other bowls, like the Holiday, Independence, Florida Citrus, Liberty, and Gator Bowls. Even the Fiesta Bowl, which wormed its way into the spotlight, was considered a bit of an outsider.

The main bowl games of the time were the Cotton, Rose, Orange, and Sugar Bowls. By 1988, the Fiesta Bowl had joined the party as well. Back then, some of the teams for these games were determined by their conference. The Big-8 Conference champion (pre-cursor to the Big 12) qualified for the Orange Bowl, while the Pac-10 (now called the Pac-12) and Big-10 champions met every year in the Rose Bowl.

The 1988 Rose Bowl
The Michigan State Spartans qualified for the Rose Bowl on the strength of victories over Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana. They were led on defence by linebacker Percy Snow and on offence by quarterback Bobby McAllister, runningback Lorenzo White, and receiver Andre Rison. This trip to the Rose Bowl was the Spartans’ first since the 1965 season.

Meanwhile, the USC Trojans would start their domination of the Pac-10 conference, as this appearance was the first of three consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl. They were led by quarterback Rodney Peete, a personal favourite of mine, who would go on to a successful pro career with Detroit and Dallas.

The teams had actually met in the season opener, with Michigan State winning 27-13.

The game would be dominated by defence, as the Spartan defence forced four Trojan turnovers. USC tied the game 17-17 early in the fourth quarter, then Michigan State moved the ball down the field, setting up a field goal by Spartan kicker John Langeloh with four minutes left to play to make the score 20-17 for the Spartans. The key play of the drive turned out to be on third down when McAllister eluded the Trojan pressure, scrambled and hit Rison for a first down keeping the drive alive.

The Trojans had time to come back. Peete drove the Trojans to the Spartan 29-yard line with two minutes to go, but he fumbled the next snap. The Spartans recovered the ball and ran out the clock.

Runningback Lorenzo White, who would go on to play for the Houston Oilers, finished the game rushing the ball 35 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Snow had 17 unassisted tackles and was named the game’s most valuable player for his efforts.

Parting thoughts
The 1988 Rose Bowl symbolized many changes. It was the last Rose Bowl broadcast by NBC Sports. I had grown up watching CTV’s feed of Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen calling the Rose Bowl. The next year ABC would start broadcasting the game.

It seemed like a bigger deal at the time, but got quickly lost in the other things going on in my life. That 1988 Rose Bowl was the last one I watched on the farm I grew up on. The next year I went back to university early, and watched all the bowl games in res. The years after that, I returned to university before new year’s eve, then my parents retired and moved into the city.

The game would be just a sign of things to come for Percy Snow. He played two more years of college football, winning the Butkus Award for top linebacker, and the Lombardi Award for top linebacker or lineman, both in 1989, becoming one of just four players to win both awards. He was taken in the first round of the 1990 NFL draft, 13th overall, by the Kansas City Chiefs.

However, his college success did not translate to the pro level. He had a great rookie season, but injuries cut his career short. He played a total of just 40 games, retiring in 1993.

But on New Year’s Day, 1988, Percy Snow was the best player on the field. He made a lasting impression, which the Spartans needed because it would be another 26 years before Michigan State returned to Pasadena. This time there was no Snow though.

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