Bowl game in sight as UW runs for victory
By JOHN SLEEPER
SEATTLE — The opportunity was there for the Washington Huskies to run the ball and help the UCLA Bruins die a horribly slow, lingering death.
Run it the seventh-ranked Huskies did. In fact, in Washington’s 35-28 Pacific-10 Conference victory Saturday at Husky Stadium, it ran so much that UCLA didn’t have enough possessions to catch up.
The Huskies, led by freshman Rich Alexis’ 127 yards on 21 carries and Willie Hurst’s 99 yards on 11 carries, rolled up a season-high 349 yards on the ground. They kept the ball away from the Bruins’ quick-strike offense by hogging the blessed thing for a season-high 38 minutes, 39 seconds.
The Huskies took advantage of a patchwork Bruin defensive line that started three freshmen. And the Huskies (9-1, 6-1 Pac-10), who won their sixth straight game, chewed them up.
"It was what we wanted to do," UW coach Rick Neuheisel said. "We wanted to have ball control today and control most of the clock. We had it for 38 minutes. My goal was 35."
The victory was a huge step in the Huskies’ securing a top-flight bowl game. A win at Washington State Saturday, coupled with an Oregon State victory over Oregon, sends Washington to the Rose Bowl as the Pac-10 champ.
Even if Oregon comes through, the Huskies have a good shot at a BCS bowl game, likely a Fiesta Bowl bid against, possibly, Notre Dame. Fiesta Bowl representatives observed the Huskies Saturday, as did 71,886 shivering fans at Husky Stadium.
It wasn’t that the Bruins (6-4, 3-4) weren’t devastatingly effective when they had the ball. UCLA scored three straight TDs in the first half to take a 21-14 lead and churned out 369 yards. The issue was that the Huskies didn’t give the Bruins a sufficient chance to win.
Washington ran the option at will. The Bruins couldn’t stop it. And with the huge Husky offensive line relentlessly pounding on the Bruins, death was, indeed, slow.
"They have their option running like a machine," UCLA strong safety Marques Anderson said. "We tried to stop it and couldn’t do it. We couldn’t contain them when they got to the outside."
The Huskies scored four touchdowns on the tail end of drives of 71 yards or more, including one of 79, one of 80 and an absolute gem in the third quarter of 95. Four TD drives took nine plays or more.
"The offensive line played great," UW quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo said. "All week long, we were told that we have to play physical, and they did a good job up front. They took the challenge of being physical and opened up big holes for our backs."
For a change, the Huskies didn’t require any fourth-quarter rally. There was nothing in particular that made fans scrounge around in their for blood-pressure cuffs. Oh sure, after getting out to a 14-0 start, unheard of in this year of preposterously slow beginnings, the Huskies did surrender three straight touchdowns to the Bruins and trailed 21-14 at the half.
But in this season, in which the Huskies have trailed in all but one of their nine victories, this one felt like a vacation on the Riviera.
Hurst sprinted 62 yards on the first play of the second half to put Washington on the Bruins’ 9-yard line. The run, however, came at a cost. On the play, Hurst broke his right collarbone and will miss Saturday’s Apple Cup, if not whatever bowl game Washington finishes in.
"It’s a little frustrating, but it’s also part of the game," said Hurst, who emerged the last three games as a hard-running, dependable back. "You know getting injured is a risk every time you suit up. I played hard and played well for three games after waiting my chance, so that is very satisfying. I know my hard work did not go to waste."
Two plays later, Conniff waltzed in from 4 yards out to tie the game at 21.
Conniff pulled Washington into the lead for the last time, 28-21 on a 5-yard run, one that capped a 95-yard, 11-play drive.
The Huskies extended the advantage with their third touchdown in the quarter, a 2-yard timing pattern from Tuiasosopo to wideout Todd Elstrom to make it 35-21. It was the only pass completed to a wideout — tight end Jerramy Stevens had four catches for 80 yards — but it was enough.
The teams exchanged possessions for much of the fourth quarter without much success until quarterback Cory Paus found wideout Brian Poli-Dixon for a 7-yard TD with less than 2 minutes remaining to cut the lead to 35-28.
UCLA tried an onside kick, but UW linebacker Anthony Kelley fell on it. Although the Bruins got the ball back on downs with seconds left, Kelley sacked Paus, forced him to fumble and pounced on the ball to clinch it.
From the beginning, Washington’s strategy was apparent and effective.
Alexis gained 52 yards in five carries on the Huskies’ opening drive — 10 plays, 80 yards, 3:51 — capped by a 14-yard TD pass to Stevens.
The Huskies followed with a 79-yard, nine-play drive that took 4:07, capped by a 3-yard blast up the middle by Hurst, and the Huskies led, 14-0, with 3:48 left in the first quarter.
The Huskies absorbed a scare, however, on the drive when Alexis went down with a sprained shoulder and missed the rest of the half. Washington, already without starter Paul Arnold (back), leaned heavily on third-stringer Hurst and inserted Braxton Cleman, who had been playing fullback the last 5 weeks, to tailback.
UCLA showed little inclination to stop Alexis, who gained 75 yards on seven carried up to the time he was injured. Whether it was on option pitches or blasts up the middle, the Bruins had no answers for the true freshman from Coral Springs, Fla.
Alexis returned in the third quarter, but only after Hurst injured his collarbone. Alexis’ status for next week isn’t known.
"At this point in the season, you just have to suck it up," Alexis said. "You have to do whatever it takes, even if you’re a little banged up."
The Bruins responded quickly after falling behind two touchdowns. Paus hit Poli-Dixon for a 48-yard bomb to the Husky 5. Two plays later, Paus found fullback Ed Ieremia-Stansbury for a 5-yard TD toss and the Bruins trailed 14-7 late in the first.
The Bruins recovered a Tuiasosopo fumble on the Husky 11 on the Huskies’ next possession. However, Paus ruined it when he threw a terrible ball into coverage in the end zone, and freshman safety Greg Carothers picked him off.
"It looked like he short-armed it," Carothers said. "It came right to me. I lucked out."
UCLA turned a low, line-drive punt by Ryan Fleming and a personal foul by corner Anthony Vontoure into six points to tie it at 14. The Bruins needed just four plays to go 47 yards for a TD on a 12-yard run by DeShaun Foster.
Washington had more than its share of miscues. Tuiasosopo’s second fumble came when the Huskies were in the midst of a promising drive, hoping to go up, 21-7. Anderson knocked the ball out of Tuiasosopo’s hands just as Tuiasosopo was going down on the heels of an 8-yard gain. Defensive tackle Kory Lombard recovered on the Bruin 20-yard line and the Huskies came up empty.
UCLA took advantage of great field position and shoddy pass coverage late in the half to go up, 21-14. Starting at the Husky 49, Paus hit Dixon on a 45-yard pass play to the Husky 4 when cornerback Omare Lowe, trying for an interception, mistimed his leap.
Two plays later, Foster leaped over from the 1, and the Bruins went into halftime with a 21-14 lead, having scored three straight TDs.
It wouldn’t last long, though.
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