SEATTLE – At the beginning of the season, there were questions about this University of Washington football team.
Questions about the receivers.
Questions about the running game.
Questions about the defensive line.
Questions about the secondary.
Now those questions have been answered.
They have been answered by a group of kids who might not have been all-world talent-wise, but were all-universe effort-wise.
They have been answered resoundingly – with the only measuring stick that matters: wins and losses.
And who would ever have guessed it? Who would ever have thought this team – with questions, questions and more questions – would be … 9-1 and ranked in the top 10 in the country on Nov. 12?
The only people who really mattered, that’s who – the players and the coaches.
You see, it doesn’t matter what the outside world thinks. It only matters what the combatants believe.
And these guys apparently believed they could be a unique team. They certainly have been that.
They will never be confused with the ‘91 national championship Husky team. But they have earned a place in their fans’ hearts for their sheer willpower, for their grittiness, for their toughness, for their tenacity.
Their coach often brought up their character. Coaches often use that word to describe a team and sometimes it isn’t appropriate. With this team, it is. It is very appropriate.
That quality – character – might have been the only thing that kept the Huskies from being a 7-3 or 6-4 team with one game remaining in the season. For how many teams would have had the resolve to come back again and again in the fourth quarter as this team did? Not many.
When the Huskies walked off their home turf for the final time Saturday night, some of the seniors hung back. They weren’t ready to leave just yet.
“It’s difficult to leave a place where you have such fond memories,” said Husky coach Rick Neuheisel. And with an unbeaten home slate (6-0) this season, they’ll have nothing but good memories to take with them.
When the final second ticked off the clock with the scoreboard showing Washington 35 and UCLA 28, Husky lineman Matt Rogers turned and looked up in the southwest corner of the horseshoe in Husky Stadium. There, he saw a sight that could only tickle a lineman’s heart: on the statistics board were three numbers that jumped out at Rogers – 349.
That was the net rushing yardage for the Huskies.
“When I looked back up at that scoreboard, that was a nice feeling,” said Rogers, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound backup tackle. “That’s what we’re coached to do, what we’re able to do, what we did.”
The Husky O-line blocked so efficiently that one running back surpassed 100 yards and another was just a yard shy of it. And if Willie Hurst hadn’t gotten hurt on the first play of the second half, he would have hit the century mark as well. As it was, he left the game with a broken collarbone.
On his last play, he did something that set the tone for the third quarter. With the Huskies behind 21-14, he burst up the middle and into the open field, put a couple of moves on the D-backs and raced 62 yards to the Bruin 9. Two plays later, fullback Pat Conniff bulled over from the 4 and the Huskies were soon tied at 21-all.
“The biggest play, to me, of the second half was Willie’s run,” said Husky offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson. “We’re going to miss Willie.”
That play and that touchdown got the Huskies snarling. Because by the time the third quarter was over, they had reeled off 21 straight points to take a 35-21 lead. There would be no need for a miracle comeback in the final 15 minutes on this day.
The Huskies came into this game determined to run the ball. UCLA’s defensive line was beaten up. It was starting three redshirt freshmen.
Take it to ‘em, was the game plan. Take it to ‘em until the run stopped working. It never did.
Time after time, it was boom, boom, boom, the Husky O-line dominating, the backs running to daylight.
“I was just seeing big holes,” said Rich Alexis, the flashy pure freshman tailback who rushed for 127 yards on 21 carries, a stout 6-yard average.
Alexis put his name in the Husky record books, pushing his season rushing total to 604, the most ever by a true freshman. The man whose record he broke – Willie Hurst (538).
The Huskies came out of the locker room rarin’ to test UCLA’s run defense. They put together an 80-yard touchdown drive on their first possession and 55 of the yards were on runs.
On successive plays, Alexis took pitchouts from quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo and went 16 yards to the right side, then 19 yards to the left side. Up in the coaches box, Gilbertson had to be smiling.
Down on the field, in the trenches, the linemen to be thinking it was going to be a fun night. “You can’t wait to get up there for the next play (when it’s going like that),” Rogers said. “You feel it in your stomach.”
What the line’s play allowed the Huskies to do was control the clock by a wide margin: 38:39 to 21:21.
“My goal was 35 (minutes),” Neuheisel said. “One way to stop a team that has a fastbreak offense is to keep it on the sideline.”
Neuheisel expressed pride in his team’s record, “remarkable given the balance of the league.”
Remarkable given all the questions surrounding this team.
Incidentally, one area that was not questioned: the O-line.
They showed why Saturday.