By JOHN SLEEPER
SEATTLE — All Rich Alexis could think about was the fumble, an especially galling bobble that could have cost his team dearly.
The Washington Huskies freshman tailback had made his first career start in Saturday’s 36-24 victory against Cal, but it was one he didn’t care to remember.
For longer than he cared to think about, it was his lost fumble that put the ninth-ranked Huskies in danger of losing to the Bears for the first time since 1976. More important, a loss would have thrown the Huskies completely out of contention for a BCS bowl.
It was a game in which Alexis’ 17-year-old sister had traveled all the way from their home in Coral Springs, Fla., to see him play, the first family member to see Alexis in person wearing a UW uniform.
What she saw was her brother losing a fumble after getting popped by defensive end Andre Carter early in the second quarter. She saw Cal linebacker John Klotsche scoop up the ball and rumble 34 yards for a touchdown. When she looked up at the scoreboard, she saw California 14, Washington 7.
"What I was thinking about was that I had to get something back for my team after the fumble," Alexis said. "It was my first of the year, but you never want to fumble. Once I got the ball back, all I wanted to do was something positive. I put us in a hole and I wanted to get it back for everyone."
He got his chance in the fourth quarter, during the Huskies’ improbable comeback.
Washington still was down 24-22 with 6 1/2 minutes left when UW free safety Hakim Akbar recovered a fumble by Cal tailback Joe Igber on the Bears 16-yard line.
On the next play, Alexis took a pitch from quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo and dashed to his left. He followed a jolting block from fullback Ken Walker, turned the corner and sprinted down the sideline. Finally, he found the end zone via a block from flanker Todd Elstrom, and scored the go-ahead touchdown.
"I had to get into the end zone," Alexis said. "I owed that to the team."
Paid in full.
He came into halftime with one catch to show for 30 minutes of being double-teamed, triple-teamed, held, pushed and jerked around.
He corrected matters in the second half, with three catches for 30 yards, including one fourth-quarter touchdown reception that pulled the Huskies to a 24-22 deficit with 6:49 left in the game.
"It was the toughest day that it’s ever been to get off the line of scrimmage," Stevens said. "I hadn’t really experienced anything like that. I gathered myself at halftime and had to figure out a new strategy to get away from them before they could get a hold of me."
Stevens first gave defenders a shake with his feet to establish some spacing off the line of scrimmage, but in the second half, he slapped their hands when they tried to take hold of his jersey.
"It worked a little bit better," Stevens said. "I could get away before they grabbed me."
Johnson, usually the punt returner, gave up that duty because of his full-time stint at cornerback. Cascade High grad Toure Butler returned punts, although Johnson and true freshman Sean Sweat returned kickoffs.
Johnson’s 56-yard return in the third quarter is the Huskies’ longest this season. He finished the day with 119 return yards, just short of his career-high of 121 against Oregon State.
The last time Washington started three true freshman was the 1998 Apple Cup, when wideout Chris Juergens, tailback Willie Hurst and safety Hakim Akbar started against Washington State.
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