Apples blossom into Roses

  • JOHN SLEEPER / Herald Writer
  • Saturday, November 18, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

UW will play in Rose Bowl

By JOHN SLEEPER

Herald Writer

PULLMAN — Forget any last-minute heroics.

The Washington Huskies didn’t need them. And it was evident early on that the Huskies, fully cognizant that Oregon State had beaten Oregon that day, were going to be Pacific-10 Conference champions.

Saturday’s 51-3 Apple Cup slaughter over Washington State at Martin Stadium was in hand well before the final gun.

"We were hitting on all cylinders today," UW coach Rick Neuheisel said.

While it is likely that the Huskies (10-1, 7-1 Pac-10) will face Purdue Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl, the other possibility, however remote, still exists that Washington may climb from its No. 5 spot in the Bowl Championship Series ranking to No. 1 or 2 and play for the BCS title at the Orange Bowl.

That will be determined in a couple of weeks.

Right now, however, none of the Huskies care.

As purple-clad fans poured onto the field following the onslaught, players danced to the booming sound of the UW band’s rendition of "Tequila." Many boogied with roses in their teeth and held up an index finger into the frigid night air.

Two seasons after finishing 6-6, losing to Air Force in the Oahu Bowl and suffering through a coaching change, Washington clinched a Rose Bowl berth for the first time since 1992.

"This is a tight team," nose tackle Larry Tripplett said. "It’s a lot like a family. We may have our fights sometimes, but we fight like we’re brothers. We all love each other."

Saturday’s victory capped a truly riveting regular season for a Washington team whose chutzpah more than made up for a myriad of holes in its talent level. From two-a-days in August, it was apparent that its receiving corps lacked speed and adequate hands; that the defensive line lacked experience; that the secondary needed to find a replacement for the graduated Jermaine Smith.

The Huskies rarely chalked up style points in any game until they absolutely needed to, until Saturday. They won seven games by a touchdown or less and needed comebacks in seven of their 10 victories, five coming in the final quarter.

Yet, here they are, certainly among the most resilient teams in the nation, closer than anyone could have dared imagine to a national championship.

"We always believed," UW quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo said.

Finally, they made it look easy in the regular-season finale. The Cougars (4-7, 2-6) were never inclined to be in the game past the first five minutes.

Washington’s defense harassed freshman quarterback Matt Kegel by mixing and disguising coverages and unleashing numerous blitz packages. Kegel, who burned a good USC defense the previous Saturday via the big play, rarely had a chance to breathe under a swarming Husky pass rush.

He finished the day 12 of 28 passing for 122 yards and an interception. He was sacked twice, but hurried and hit many more times.

"He’s a young quarterback and we wanted to get him out of his comfort zone," Neuheisel said. "We tried to mix things up and keep him unsettled."

UW cornerback Chris Massey picked Kegel off in the end zone on the Cougars’ second possession, which ruined a promising drive while the game still was openly competitive. Washington led 6-0 at the time, and that was the closest the Cougs would ever get.

On offense, Husky tailbacks Rich Alexis and Braxton Cleman led a thunderous UW running game that racked up 336 yards. The Huskies’ huge offensive line took control early and quickly wore down a WSU front.

Alexis, who missed some practice on the week with a sprained shoulder, ran for 95 yards on eight carries in the first half, 50 coming on one run in the second quarter. He finished with 122 yards on 11 carries, while Cleman added 105 yards on 15 carries.

Much of Washington’s ground success came through its most simple, brutal plays, sending Alexis, Cleman and fullback Pat Conniff up the middle. Washington’s offensive line effectively knocked WSU’s front line off the line of scrimmage with straight-ahead blocking, and the Husky ballcarriers often weren’t even touched until they gained 3 yards or more.

"The backs did their job and we did our job," Husky tackle Elliot Silvers said.

Tuiasosopo was at his elusive, improvising best, but also enjoyed what was his most efficient game. Before Neuheisel mercifully sat him down after three quarters, Tuiasosopo was 11 of 20 passing for 190 yards and three touchdowns, two to freshman wide receiver Justin Robbins.

For the game, Washington racked up 526 yards and held WSU to 210. The Huskies led 27-0 at the half, 37-3 after three quarters.

As the margin increased, so did the Cougars’ frustration. WSU had 15 penalties, many coming on personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conducts.

"We lost our composure," WSU coach Mike Price said. "We didn’t play with maturity at all."

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