By Aaron Coe
SEATTLE – Willie Hurst finally earned the bragging rights he’s been waiting for his entire college career.
The Washington Husky tailback endured three long years of needling from family and friends in his hometown of Compton, Calif., who kept telling him he should have stayed home and played football for Southern California.
After Washington’s 27-24 victory Saturday afternoon at Husky Stadium, they’ll likely be a quiet bunch next time he pays them a visit.
“They were the only team in the Pac-10 that I hadn’t beat yet,” said Hurst, who rushed for 110 yards and gave the Huskies their first lead of the game with a 14-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. “When I see those guys, the trash talkin’ starts.”
The last time Hurst played against USC was 1998, when he was a promising, but wide-eyed freshman. The Huskies lost 33-10 that day, and Hurst has had to be a patient man since then.
His career has been full of twists and turns. He’s gone from tailback of the future to forgotten man to team captain.
There was the failed experimental shift to wide receiver prior to his junior season. There was the speculation that he would transfer because of the depth at running back. There was the emergence of Rich Alexis as a true freshman last year and the promise of Paul Arnold, who has since been the one to switch to wideout.
Hurst injured a hamstring in practices before the second game of the year against Idaho and had to miss last week’s fourth-quarter comeback victory over California while he stayed home in Seattle.
Having to watch his team fall behind the winless Bears last week nearly made him run down I-5 so he could perform CPR. He knew he could be the difference. The only thing that kept him from losing his mind was thoughts of humiliating the Trojans.
On Saturday, that patience paid off – for himself and his team.
“He’s always clutch,” UW center Kyle Benn said. “I love the guy. When he’s out there, good things happen.”
With a young offensive line and backup quarterback Taylor Barton in the game, the Huskies needed a special day from their senior tailback.
They needed his leadership and his play-making ability late in the game, when younger players often begin to fold like bad poker players.
He carried the ball on six of the Huskies’ nine plays prior to John Anderson’s game-winning field goal as time expired and touched the ball on 10 of his team’s last 20 plays. He turned a short screen pass from Barton into a 31-yard gain early in the fourth quarter that set up Anderson’s miss from 35 yards that would have given the UW its first lead of the game.
Hurst gave his team that lead on the next drive, when he took another screen, followed his blockers and made a dive into the end zone that would have earned him a 9.7 score in an Olympic pool. He wanted to run that play all day long because he noticed the Trojan’s defensive ends breaking out on several plays and creating lanes he craved to run through.
As usual, when he got his chance, he delivered.
“Willie is a leader and he’s a competitor,” Washington offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson said. “He made a couple of runs out of things that weren’t runs (Saturday). This was a neat day for Willie Hurst.”
Much like his career at the UW, this season has had its good and bad moments for Hurst. He entered Saturday’s game with a not-so-grand total of 21 yards on 11 carries.
He began the season as the main punt returner, but after Hurst aggravated his hamstring injury against Idaho, true freshman Charles Frederick returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown.
But, before UW’s winning drive, when the coaches wanted a reliable player to return the Trojans’ punt, they went with Hurst.
“My career has had its ups and downs,” Hurst said. “I’d like to think it’s had more ups than downs. I’m satisfied with my career and I want to go out of here as a winner.”
On a day when the Huskies needed him most, he proved he is one.