By John Sleeper
SEATTLE – For the first time, Cody Pickett didn’t have to rely on lightning strikes from the defense or special teams to bail out the Washington Huskies in the fourth quarter.
Think of it. Rookie quarterback. Darn near a rookie offensive line. And they wiped out a 14-point deficit to the California Golden Bears without momentum generated by a touchdown off a blocked field goal or an interception.
In fact, in Washington’s 31-28 victory against Cal, the Washington offense had as much to do with the fourth-quarter comeback as anything.
“It was good for our offense,” Pickett said. “It wasn’t how we wanted to win, but it ended up good how we won. It showed we can do it in the fourth quarter.”
It may pay long-term dividends, because up to then, the UW offense showed only in flashes that it could compete against a big-time defense. It didn’t require that Roc Alexander or Chris Massey return a blocked field goal for a touchdown. It didn’t need Omare Lowe to intercept a tipped pass and score.
In fact, the Huskies’ offense looked much like the cardiac bunch Marques Tuiasosopo led to the Rose Bowl last season. For the 2001 version of the Huskies, it seemed an initiation into a program that, under coach Rick Neuheisel, has come back in 15 of its 20 victories, 10 times in the fourth quarter.
“The mentality of this team is that we’re not going to stop playing until the game’s over,” center Kyle Benn. “Somebody always makes a play that sparks the team and we get rolling.”
Indeed, this is a team whose upperclassmen are used to coming back in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t even worry about the score anymore,” UW defensive tackle Larry Tripplett said. “I can’t remember the last time I was worried about it.”
Likely, it was at halftime of the Washington-Cal game in October 1999 at Berkeley. The Huskies had just come off a 28-7 whipping at home against Arizona State, a game in which the offense fumbled six times.
Now, Washington was down 17-10 at the half, with 10 Cal points coming off a fumble and an interception.
In the dressing room at halftime, Washington defenders aired the offense out for botching it up. It got loud. Profane.
Then the coaching staff intervened.
“We tried to nip it in the bud at halftime,” Neuheisel said. “We were 3-3 on the season. I remember that being a pivotal game, maybe the pivotal game of the season. We found a way to win and erase what had been a little back-biting at halftime. Since that time, that has dissipated.”
The players credit the lack of back-biting and finger-pointing as the major reasons for its remarkable ability to win games that it has little business winning.
“Our team just unites,” offensive guard Elliott Zajac said. “It just happens in crunch time. We’re a close team, but we tighten down even more.”
Said Pickett: “Whenever we come in at halftime, if we’re down and the offense isn’t playing well, the defense says, ‘Hey, we’ve got your back.’ It happened with Michigan. The offense wasn’t playing that well. The defense came in and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got your back.’ They were playing well and they really did have our backs. We’ve never really had the finger-pointing.”
It didn’t used to be that way.
Upperclassmen say the team was split in 1998, when opponents outscored Washington 104-43 in the fourth quarter. Washington was 1-6 when it trailed in the final frame. It has gotten progressively better: 3-3 in 1999 and 5-1 in 2000, when Washington outscored its foes in the fourth, 100-82.
“I think No. 1 is the belief that things will happen, and that’s not unique to our program,” Neuheisel said. “No. 2 is you have to have some success in the fourth quarter. Fortunately, we have had some, so there is a confidence factor that goes with that. You’ve seen it happen before, so you expect it to happen again.”
In fact, Benn’s teammates say he even has the nerve to smile when the Huskies are behind.
“Yeah, there are times I remember that,” Benn said, laughing. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s a confidence thing. Sometimes, you look around and you see some guys on the team that give you a look. Then you both smile, like, here we go again.”