Something feels different in Seattle this week.
Amidst the buildup for the Seahawks’ season opener, and angst over the Mariners’ recent tailspin, Seattle is experiencing something it hasn’t had in a while now.
Genuine excitement about Husky football.
It’s early still, and Washington has played only one game, but there is a buzz surrounding Saturday’s home opener against Boise State that has been missing in recent years.
When the Huskies hosted San Jose State to kick off last season, there were 52,256 fans in attendance. Washington didn’t draw more than 60,000 until an Oct. 14 game against Oregon State. On Saturday, Husky Stadium will be close to sold out, if not sold out, and Washington will have its first home crowd of more than 70,000 since the 2005 Apple Cup.
“You can feel the difference this year,” former Husky quarterback Sonny Sixkiller said. “I’m fortunate to be around Husky Stadium and follow the team every year, and I think from the first couple of years of the Tyrone Willingham era to this year, there’s a really big difference.”
Sixkiller said he hasn’t seen this kind of excitement for a home game since the 1997 game against Nebraska or the 2000 game against Miami.
The single biggest reason for excitement is phenom/golden boy/savior/insert, impossibly unfair to live up to title here quarterback Jake Locker. Husky fans have been waiting for Locker’s debut since he committed to Washington while at Ferndale High School. In last week’s win over Syracuse, he didn’t disappoint.
However it’s more than just Locker and the other strong individual performances of last week’s game, Sixkiller said.
“It’s not just the athleticism of the players, but also the attitude and personality of the team,” he said. “That has really come together a lot more that I’ve seen in the past two years.”
All this enthusiasm should probably be tempered by at least a minor dose of reality. That reality being that the Huskies beat what looks to have been a pretty terrible Syracuse team. That reality also being that starting Saturday, things will get a whole heck of a lot more difficult. After they face No. 22 Boise State, the Huskies play 12th-ranked Ohio State, No. 13 UCLA and top-ranked USC, all before the calendar says October.
But right now, fans are ready for a home opener full of promise. The players can feel the difference.
“We started this season off with a big win,” senior tailback Louis Rankin said. “I think the fans are excited in Seattle, and I feel like it’s going to be a different environment.”
What’s really crazy to think about is what could happen if the Huskies beat Boise State. Could Seattle, only a week into September, become a Husky Football town once again?
Already, there has been more early season Husky talk than in recent years. And as the excitement about Montlake Jake and company grows, they could quickly become the darlings of the Seattle sports scene.
Think about it. The Mariners are nose-diving their way out of playoff contention, and while I’m not dumb enough to say the Huskies are going make people ignore the Seahawks, they could be 2-0 with a win over a ranked team before the Seahawks play a game. That’s at least enough to keep them relevant once the Seahawks begin their quest for another playoff berth. As for the Sonics? Well, we don’t need to get into that mess.
That’s how big this game is. A loss makes the Huskies 1-1 with a brutal September schedule looming. The optimism could fade quickly over the next couple of weeks. Win, however, and the Husky buzz, already at a level not seen in years, could go through the roof.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Sixkiller said. “It’s different this year than it has been in a while. I think that sends a lot of good signals for the program.”
John Boyle is The Herald’s college football writer