By JOHN SLEEPER
SEATTLE – In purely cowboy terminology, UCLA has been the burr in Washington’s saddle.
And today, the Bruins will have much to say about whether the Huskies mosey off into the sunset with Miss Kitty or towel off the beer-spattered bar at the Consolation Hotel and Saloon.
The No. 7 Huskies (8-1, 5-1 pacific-10 Conference) are in prime position for a Bowl Championship Series game, possibly the Fiesta Bowl. The trouble is, the unranked Bruins (6-3, 3-3) have gunned down Washington’s hopes of grandeur the past three seasons.
“I would not like to go out having never beaten UCLA,” UW quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo said.
In 1997, the Bruins knocked the Huskies out of Rose Bowl contention with a 52-28 pasting in Pasadena. The Bruins toyed with the Huskies 36-24 in Seattle the next year, a game that dropped Washington into a minor bowl in Hawaii. And last year, a bad Bruin team again ruined Washington’s hopes for a Rose Bowl berth with a 23-20 overtime victory.
“It’s not lost on our program that UCLA knocked us out last year,” UW coach Rick Neuheisel said. “We let that chance get away. UCLA has talent and they know how to win. We know they have every intention to come in here and do it this year.”
Yet, unlike last season, the Bruins have more tangible motivation to beat the Huskies than merely being a spoiler. UCLA is in the mix for the Aloha and Oahu bowls, but must separate itself from Arizona and/or Arizona State to do it.
And with two games remaining – the unpredictable intra-LA game against USC comes up next week – nothing is guaranteed for UCLA.
“We don’t look at it as ruining their chances,” Bruins coach Bob Toledo said. “We look at it as making ours better.”
To do so, UCLA will have to help a defensive line that starts three freshmen because of a truly amazing spate of injuries. Against Arizona two weeks ago, UCLA was missing 15 players because of injuries. Eleven were on defense. Seven were on the defensive line.
“You’d like to be able to control these things,” Toledo said. “But these injuries came in games, not in practice.”
Washington’s best bet would seem to be in testing that defensive line with its running game. Although starter Paul Arnold’s bad back will keep him out until at least the Huskies’ bowl game, freshman Rich Alexis and junior Willie Hurst have filled in admirably.
Hurst, especially, has been stellar.
Seemingly put on the shelf following an unsuccessful trial at slotback, Hurst ran for 96 yards and two touchdowns in 14 carries against Stanford. He followed that up with a 116-yard, two-TD effort against Arizona last week on just eight carries.
“Willie Hurst has the heart of a warrior,” Neuheisel said.
The Bruins are going to want to strike early and often, and with tailback DeShaun Foster and wideout Freddie Mitchell they have the talent to do just that.
Most of all, they want to put the Huskies away early to offset Washington’s remarkable ability to come back in the fourth quarter.
The Huskies have trailed in seven of their eight victories this season. Of those, five wins have come with the Huskies trailing in the fourth quarter.
“I’d like to just put a team away,” UW inside linebacker Ben Mahdavi said. “My heart can’t take much more.”
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