PULLMAN – Braxton Cleman had faith and he wasn’t afraid to show it.
As the Husky junior tailback came walking into the locker room after Washington’s 51-3 victory over Washington State Saturday night, he had pulled off his jersey, revealing a T-shirt on which he had printed: Pac-10 Champions – 10-1.
“I think I’m the only one on the team that did this,” he said. “We had a goal and we did what we had to do.”
Now that goal had been realized on a frigid night in Martin Stadium.
That was the point Wilbur Hooks Jr. was trying to make as he came through the door. The backup split end was speaking in an animated voice to a teammate and gesturing with his hands.
“It’s back to the big show,” Hooks said. “The Rose Bowl, not the Oahu Bowl. We’re going to the Rose Bowl.”
Pac-10 champions. Ten and one record. Rose Bowl.
“Who’d have ever thought it?” UW athletic director Barbara Hedges asked, after accepting congratulations from two Rose Bowl representatives standing in the foyer outside the locker room.
These kids, that’s who. “We thought we could be 11-0,” Cleman said.
They might have been if they had played that one game they lost – to Oregon – as they did Saturday against the Cougs.
This was the most complete game the Huskies had played all season. They dominated in every phase of the game and they did it for four quarters. “We were on all cylinders,” said UW coach Rick Neuheisel.
They hammered an exclamation point on a season that still could end up in a national championship game, but since too many things have to fall in place, they’ll be happy with the one sure thing they have: a Jan. 1 date with Purdue in the best bowl in the country.
“I’ve got great memories of the Rose Bowl,” Neuheisel said. “I played in two of them. One as a holder, which was a thrill because it was my first one. The second one I had food poisoning, but I ended up playing pretty well and our team beat Illinois. Then I got to coach in one as an assistant for UCLA. It’s a treat of a lifetime, and we’re going to make it special.”
They play as they did Saturday and they’ll make it special. Cleman and Rich Alexis each rushed for more than 100 yards behind a line that dominated. Quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo threw only 20 passes, but completed 11 for 190 yards and three touchdowns. And the defense held the Cougars’ offense to 210 yards, almost 170 yards below their average.
If you could say there was one big play in a game decided by eight touchdowns, it came when the Huskies held the Cougars on a fourth-and-one at the WSU 43 with 20 seconds remaining in the half and Washington leading 20-0. Two plays later, Tuiasosopo hit freshman Justin Robbins with a 34-yard touchdown pass and it was 27-0.
“I would never do that again,” said WSU coach Mike Price. “I would’ve run the clock out or punted or anything else if I would have known they were going to throw a pass … “
Hey, Mike, ever heard of the element of surprise? It wouldn’t have made any difference, though, whatever else the Cougars did. They were simply manhandled in this game.
They were beaten by a team that was completely prepared, physically and mentally. By the end of the first quarter, the score every Husky fan was most interested in had been flashed on the scoreboard: Oregon State 23, Oregon 13. That meant all the Huskies had to do to claim a berth in the Rose Bowl was take care of business with the Cougars. By this time, they were well on their way to doing just that, leading 13-0.
They could have let it become a distraction. That they didn’t shows how focused this team was. It just continued to execute well. That’s a sign of maturity that bodes well for next year because of the youth of this team.
The Cougars are also very young. They started one senior on offense, three on defense. Their best days are ahead and, for Price’s sake, they had better be. Cougar fans are getting antsy for a winner after three straight losing seasons.
Price remarked earlier this season that “the future’s so bright, I’ve got to wear shades.” He was asked after the game if he was looking forward to next season?
“God, I’d like to be able to say that right now, but I’m not in that good of a mood,” he said. “I’m in a bad mood right now and if it could be uglier, I wouldn’t want to see it. I’m disappointed to leave the seniors that way.”
To be humiliated on their own turf and then to watch the Huskies celebrate there was even harder. With less than two minutes to go, the Husky fans in the west end of the stadium began to chant, “Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl.”
This will be Washington’s first visit to the grand-daddy of the bowls since 1993, when they lost to Michigan 38-31. “I’m hoping this is a new beginning for us,” said senior tackle Elliot Silvers.
Larry Tripplett spoke of the one thing that binds this team together. “We have a genuine love for one another,” the big nose tackle said.
The young man they have focused much of their love on is Curtis Williams, the strong safety who is still hospitalized in San Jose after being seriously injured in the Stanford game Oct. 28.
“I think these kids really wanted this 10th win, not just for themselves, but for their buddy, No. 25,” Neuheisel said. “I had a chance to speak to Curtis Thursday and he told me to tell the kids how much he missed them. He also told me to tell the team how much he really wanted a (Rose Bowl) ring … I can’t wait to see the look on Curtis’ face when his teammates deliver that to him.”
Neuheisel is one confident coach, as he should be. His team may be peaking at just the right time. It is a team that has learned how to win games in difficult situations. Five come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter.
After the Huskies were beaten by Oregon on Sept. 30, Neuheisel told his players, “There are a lot of teams that win championships with 10-1 records,” recalled Tripplett. “He said we just had to keep doing what we needed to do.”
They did and it paid off.
Just as Braxton Cleman knew it would.
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