By JOHN SLEEPER
SEATTLE – They will run out of the tunnel with No. 25 on their breast and Curtis Williams in their hearts.
That’s the only guarantee coming from Montlake these days. Sure, the Washington Huskies, ranked eighth in the country and gunning for a major bowl game, are favored to beat Arizona today.
But it would be preposterous to think that somewhere in their minds, the Huskies won’t be with Williams, their senior strong safety who lies in the intensive care unit of Stanford Medical Center with a spinal-cord injury. (Williams is showing improvement, story page 3F).
At 4-1 in the Pacific-10 Conference, 7-1 overall, the Huskies still have a chance to beat out Oregon for a Rose Bowl berth. Should they beat Arizona today, they have only UCLA and Washington State in their way to an 11-1 season.
Yet, the most formidable opponent could be their own concentration level.
“The best thing we can do for Curtis is go play our hearts out and try to win the last three games,” UW quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo said.
The Huskies have been doing and saying all the right things. Coach Rick Neuheisel has addressed the delicate balance of expressing the appropriate respect and love for their fallen teammate, while at the same time, preparing to do what it takes to achieve what could be a special season.
“I think you let the kids deal with it the way they think it is appropriate to deal with it,” Neuheisel said. “Yet, you make sure we all understand that this is what we have to do. I don’t think you try to push away the human emotions that exist. I don’t think you ignore them. That would be silly. So we deal with those, but we have an assignment and No. 25 wants us to carry out that assignment.”
First up is Arizona (3-2, 5-3), a team riding a two-game losing streak; a team whose offense hasn’t held up its end in its quest to become bowl-eligible.
The Wildcats’ defense is one comparable to the Desert Swarm unit that terrorized the Pac-10 just a few years ago. Led by a fearsome front seven that highlights end Joe Tafoya, tackle Anthony Thomas and linebacker Adrian Koch, Arizona is sixth in the nation against the run and has allowed just four rushing touchdowns.
The Wildcats’ 29 sacks is second in the Pac-10 and their 28 forced turnovers lead the conference. League-leading Oregon managed just two touchdowns against Arizona.
Yet, it was the Wildcats defense that yielded a game-winning drive to UCLA last week.
On fourth-and-4, Bruins quarterback Cory Paus dropped a short pass over the middle to wideout Freddie Mitchell, who slipped by Koch and gained 15 yards to the Wildcats 19-yard line.
Four plays later, with less than a minute left and after an Arizona offsides penalty, Paus dropped back, scrambled, eluded three tacklers and scored to give UCLA a 27-24 victory.
“They wanted it more,” Tafoya said. “It was devastating.”
So that’s the matchup. Arizona, needing a victory to become bowl-eligible and pining to redeem itself for one that got away, faces a Washington team that is trying to forget about heartache for a few hours and close in on what it hopes becomes a special season.
“That is what we came together at the beginning of the season to do and, by gosh, we are going to give it everything we’ve got,” Neuheisel said.
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