PASADENA, Calif. -- The Ohio State Buckeyes have it all figured out. If they play Arizona State's wide receivers tight, stifle the Sun Devils' running game and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, the 83rd Rose Bowl should be a piece of cake.
It would be a nice theory if Sun Devils quarterback Jake Plummer had one predictable bone in his body.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers tried to pressure him, and he kicked them right out of the national championship picture. The UCLA Bruins thought they had him all wrapped up in October, and he brought Arizona State back from a tremendous second-half deficit to keep the Sun Devils' unlikely hopes for a national title alive. The same sort of thing happened against USC.
Now, Plummer has one last chance to make a good first impression. The Nebraska game was not on network television because everyone thought it would be another Cornhuskers blowout. The Sun Devils' program -- and its exciting senior quarterback -- started to get more national recognition after that, but Wednesday's Rose Bowl could be something of a coming-out party for a player whom USC coach John Robinson compared favorably with a young Joe Montana.
Plummer did crack the list of Heisman Trophy candidates this year, but he remains relatively unheralded outside of Arizona. That might change on Wednesday, when the Sun Devils could put themselves in line for the mythical national title with a victory over the fourth-ranked Buckeyes.
"This is the big time," Plummer said yesterday. "This is what you dream about doing. If you're a college basketball player, it's the Final Four. For me, it was the chance to play in the Rose Bowl and the chance to win a national championship."
It took four years -- three of them less than dream seasons -- to get to this point. Head coach Bruce Snyder recruited Plummer out of Capital High School in Boise, Idaho, snatching him away from Washington State with a Horatio Alger pitch that the two of them could rebuild the Arizona State football program and eventually compete for a national championship.
"I dreamed of being at this point, but never quite expected it to happen," Plummer said. "We're living it now. We're not dreaming it anymore."
There were some tough times. There was a point last year, right after the Sun Devils suffered a tough loss to Stanford, that Plummer began to wonder why he'd ever picked up a football in the first place. He knows the answer now. It was for the opportunity that will present itself on Wednesday.
Several opportunities, actually: The chance to carry Arizona State to its first national football championship; the chance to show everybody who overlooked the ASU program before the start of the 1996 season; one more chance to show everyone who figured he was too slight (6 feet 2, 192 pounds) -- and too aprototypical -- to be one of the top quarterbacks in college football.
"He's fiercely competitive," said Snyder. "That is something either you're born with or you learn very early. It's not something that we gave him. It's just something that either you have it or you don't."
It's that competitive fire that clearly fuels this Arizona State team. Plummer may discount his individual leadership role, but his teammates feed off his intensity. Just ask them.
"He's just a tremendous competitor," said receiver Keith Poole, who has teamed up with Plummer on a team-leading 46 receptions this year. "He means a lot to this team. It's because of him that our team has so much confidence that we can score."
Somehow, Plummer always seems to find a way to make things happen, whether it's throwing for the last-minute touchdown or making a highlight-reel, damn-the-torpedoes dash for the end zone.
"The thing about him that you see on the films is how tough he is," said Ohio State cornerback Shawn Springs. "There was one highlight from this year where he's running for the end zone and takes a couple of hits and you can see that he's not going to let anyone keep him from scoring. He's a great player. He's tough."
But the thing that makes opposing defensive coordinators toss and turn is his creativity. Plummer has an uncanny ability to make something out of nothing, scrambling out of trouble to find Poole for a big play or just scrambling for a big first down. That's why Robinson thought the kid from Idaho looked a little like Montana.
"I couldn't tell you why that is," Plummer said. "It's just from being a competitor and trying to keep the play alive. You're just trying to give your team a chance to have a positive play."
The vaunted Ohio State defense may be the biggest challenge of his collegiate career, but the feeling apparently is mutual. Buckeyes coach John Cooper has made no secret of his intention to play the ASU receivers man to man and try to put extra pressure on Plummer with his safeties and linebackers.
"They are big and physical, and they like to come and hit me," Plummer said. "There have been some teams that have wanted to knock me out of the game or disrupt my rhythm. They've succeeded for a couple of quarters, but I just try to come back and make a few big plays and let our defense play the way they do."
Plummer knows that Ohio State has an outstanding group of defensive backs -- particularly Springs and fellow cornerback Ty Howard -- but he said yesterday that he will go right at them if he gets time to throw.
"We've seen all of that," he said. "We've seen everything that they will put in front of us. They have great DBs. Keith [Poole] is a great receiver and Springs is a great cornerback.
"That's a great matchup. Sooner or later, somebody's going to crack. I hope it's Springs and I hope I have enough time for [Poole] to get open and get him the ball."
If so, the Sun Devils soon may be celebrating that national title, though they still would need Florida to defeat Florida State in the Sugar Bowl to leave them as the only undefeated major-college team.
No. 2 Arizona State (11-0) vs.
No. 4 Ohio State (10-1)
Site: Pasadena, Calif.
Time: 4: 30 p.m. Wednesday
TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/
WJFK (1300 AM)
Line: Ohio State by 2
Plummer in 1996
Jake Plummer's game-by-game passing statistics this season:
Opp. .. .. .. ..C-A .. .. ..Yds. .. .. ..TD
Washington .. .16-30 .. .. .186 .. .. .. .3
North Texas ...15-22 .. .. .213 .. .. ....3
Nebraska .. ...20-36 .. ....292 .. .. .. .1
Oregon .. .. ..21-37 .. .. .282 .. .. .. .4
Boise State ...10-15 .. .. .203 .. .. .. .2
UCLA .. .. .. .19-36 .. .. .275 .. .. .. .3
USC .. .. .. ..26-44 .. .. .277 .. .. .. .2
Stanford .. ...21-34 .. .. .316 .. .. .. .2
Oregon St. .. .11-22 .. .. .146 .. .. .. .0
California .. .10-18 .. .. .184 .. .. .. .0
Arizona .. .. .10-19 .. .. .201 .. .. .. .3
Totals .. .. 179-313 .. ...2575 .. .. .. 23
Pub Date: 12/30/96