The Sun Devils, meanwhile, were undefeated, ranked #2 in the nation, and had hopes of capturing the school’s first national championship in football. Leading the way for ASU were senior quarterback Jake Plummer, tailbackTerry Battle, and a stingy defense led by end Derrick Rodgers and linebacker Pat Tillman. Perhaps ASU’s most impressive regular-season victory came against Nebraska, when ASU’s defense held the ’Huskers scoreless; Arizona State won by a score of 19–0.
Shortly before halftime, the Sun Devils finally answered via a 25 yard pass play from Jake Plummer to Ricky Boyer, tying the game after Robert Nycz’s extra point. Replays seemed to show that Boyer had trapped the ball against the end zone turf, but the touchdown stood. Neither team could manage any more points before halftime, and the game went to the break, still tied at 7–7.
After halftime, the Sun Devils would add a 37 yard field goal by Nycz to take a 10-7 lead on the opening drive of the second half.
The Buckeyes countered only two plays later, when Joe Germaine hit Dimitrious Stanley on a post pattern. ASU corner Jason Simmons slipped and fell on the turf, and Stanley was off to the races. 72 yards and an extra point later, the Buckeyes were back on top with a 14–10 lead.
No more scoring ensued in the third, and the teams went to the fourth quarter with the game very much up for grabs.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes looked to put the game away. Pepe Pearson broke a long run, leading the Buckeyes from inside their own five yard line deep into ASU territory. However, the drive stalled only three plays later, and OSU had to settle for a Josh Jackson field goal attempt.
That was not to be, as ASU’s Brent Burnstein blocked the kick. ASU Defensive endDerrick Rodgers took what appeared to be a lateral and ran the ball into the end zone, but the play was called back: Rodgers had taken an illegal forward lateral. The Sun Devils, however, had the ball with less than five minutes to play.
Jake Plummer, who had built a reputation over his college career for leading late comeback drives, did just that. The key play was a fourth down conversion when Plummer hit wideout Lenzie Jackson for a big gain. With just over a minute remaining, Plummer scrambled for eleven yards and a touchdown on third-and-goal, and ASU took the lead, 17–14.
However, Germaine was not done. He led the Buckeyes on a remarkable last-minute drive. Dimitrious Stanley caught two third-down passes from Germaine, and then, with the help of two pass interference penalties against ASU, the Bucks had the ball on the Devils’ five yard line. Germaine then flipped a pass to the aforementioned Boston, who was left undefended on a zig-out route — ASU redshirt freshman corner Courtney Jackson had blown the coverage. Boston walked into the end zone untouched, and the Buckeyes, with 19 seconds left, retook the lead, 20–17. On the next play, Burnstein blocked Josh Jackson’s extra point, leaving the Sun Devils within a field goal.
Ultimately, Lenzie Jackson would be tackled in bounds by OSU’s Antoine Winfield after catching a pass from Plummer on the second play of the ensuing drive, and time ran out. The Buckeyes had won the Rose Bowl — their first victory in the Rose Bowl since Archie Griffin’s sophomore season.
The Buckeyes would finish #2 in the nation after winning their first Rose Bowl since January 1, 1974, handing the Sun Devils their only loss of the season. The previously-third-ranked Florida Gators would end up winning the national championship after defeating the then-top-ranked Florida State Seminoles 52–20 in the Sugar Bowl. FSU had defeated the Gators earlier in the season by a score of 24–21. Had the Sun Devils won the game, they would likely had a claim to at least the AP national championship, since they would have been the only undefeated team in the nation. They ultimately finished fourth in both polls, behind Florida, Ohio State and Florida State.
Ohio State head coach John Cooper became the first coach to lead a Big Ten and a Pac-10 team to Rose Bowl victories. Previously, Cooper had led the Sun Devils to their only Rose Bowl victory, defeating Michigan in the 1987 Rose Bowl by a score of 22–15.