Warren Moon had transferred in from West Los Angeles College to be a part of Head Coach Don James inaugural season for the Seattle based school. Alabama was ranked seventh in the nation and rolled to a 38-0 halftime lead. The Tide racked up 496 total yards with 404 on the ground in the seven touchdown plus 52-0 shutout of the Huskies. Don James quipped in a 2007 interview with BamaMag.com years later, “We had a close game that day. We held them under the speed limit.”
Sophomore wishbone fullback Johnny Davis called by Paul W. Bryant the greatest fullback he ever coach rumbled through the pack of Huskies. Former Alabama and Washington players from the 1926 Rose Bowl historical game had assembled in Tuscaloosa for a 50th anniversary reunion. They witnessed the Montgomery native’s career best effort as he rushed 13 times for 155 yards and three touchdowns on runs of 31, 51 and six yards.
Moon never forgot the experience. “We got our butts handed to us by a much better football team. We felt like we had practiced well during the week and we were prepared to play and all that but they had too much talent and too much speed. We had a tough time stopping the wishbone. They had a lot of great players on that team, Woodrow Lowe, you could go on and on with the great talent they had. That is what I remember the most, we lost 52-0. I don’t think I’ve ever been beaten that bad in my career ever. That was a good reminder riding back on that bus from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham that we had a lot of work to get done.” Moon finished the day with 8 completions on 16 attempts for 89 yards. He rushed 11 times for 25 yards.
“I remember how hot and humid it was that day in Tuscaloosa,” said Moon, Analyst for the Seattle Seahawks radio broadcast. “We were not used to that type of weather conditions. It kind of wiped us out. By halftime we were a really tired football team from not being used to that heat and humidity. We had the big fans on the sidelines, but it didn’t do any good.”
A brief but memorable encounter ensued after the game. “I just wanted to shake Coach Bryant’s hand because he was so legendary. I really respected his career for so long. I wanted a chance to at least do that.” James did not hype the experience but let his team know Alabama was one of the best in the country. “He told us we would have to play one of our best football games for us to win the game but he did not make it any more than that,” Moon recalled.
James had coached Nick Saban a few years prior at Kent State. He approached the former defensive back about pursuing a coaching career. James, the forefather of Saban’s famed process, led Washington to a Rose Bowl win against Michigan two years later with Moon earning the MVP for his performance in the 27-20 victory over the Wolverines. The Tuscaloosa experience was beneficial to the Husky program.
Alabama returned the favor three years later traveling across country to Seattle for an October 7, 1978 game at Husky Stadium. Washington turned the ball over on a Tide forced fumble late in the fourth quarter and lost to the eventual national champions, 20-17. “It was one of the only games we ever played and lost in Seattle where the fans walked away satisfied,” said James.
Moon’s first association with the James protégée Saban was as a part of the Houston Oilers in 1988. “Nick was very businesslike just like he is now,” said the former Oiler quarterback. “I could tell one day he was going to be a great head coach just because the way he went about coaching our defensive backs. It was almost like there was the rest of our defense and then the defensive back group. He seemed to be just a little bit different than the other coaches. He was a little bit more intense, a little bit more detailed. All the things you see today, he was doing back in 1988 through 1989.”
Their paths crossed again in the NFL. Saban became the Cleveland Browns Defensive Coordinator and Moon was the opposing quarterback. Although not in constant communication with Saban, he is an ardent admirer. “I’ve been a big fan of his ever since he was with us in Houston. I root for wherever he is coaching. I used to root for him at Michigan State, rooted for him at LSU and I’m still rooting for him at Alabama.” “I probably should have at least congratulated him a couple of times with some of these national championships. I haven’t for whatever reason.”
Any team entertaining thoughts of competing against Alabama must have a top flight quarterback. Moon is a believer in the current Husky signal caller. Jake Browning, the 2016 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year has thrown for 42 touchdown passes with a mere seven interceptions. “He (Jake Browning) is very cerebral. He is not a great athlete with a great arm but he is good enough. He moves around well enough. He is very smart as far as knowing where to go with the football. He is very accurate with the football and makes really good decisions so that’s why he doesn’t turn it over very much. That is why their offense continues to move because he doesn’t give them a lot of negative plays. He will surprise you with his athleticism as far as taking off and running with football when he needs to. He knows he’s going to have to play his best football against this Alabama defense.”
Since Alabama reigns as number one in the nation against the rush, perimeter playmakers are essential to challenging the Tide defense. Washington’s dynamic wide receiver duo of John Ross III and Dante Pettis are exceptional with a combined 126 receptions, 31 touchdowns and 1,918 yards. “John Ross has world class speed. He has probably been clocked at less than 4.3 seconds. He’s had an amazing year,” replied Moon. “Pettis is also a really good receiver. He will surprise you with his speed. He is taller with a longer stride but he can really get deep down the field. He is an excellent punt returner (12.3 yards per return).”
Washington’s two running backs have different styles. Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman have gashed defenses for an impressive 2,230 rushing yards. “Coleman is the bruiser type back and Gaskin is more of a slasher and darter,” said Moon. “He really does a great job of setting up his blockers and will surprise you with his power at the point of contact.”
Moon added, “They have a couple of good tight ends. Darrell Daniels is the one they use the most down the field. He has really good speed. The thing they’ll do on offense is give you a lot of different looks, a lot of formations, a lot of different shifts to make your defense move around so you have to make calls and sometimes get out of position. They are very multi-faceted bring a lot of different personnel groupings and they make it difficult on you.”
Washington has lined up against nine of the top 50 rushing teams in America. They are ranked 20th overall nationally against the rush (123.5 ypg), eighth in scoring defense (17.2 ppg) and top the country in turnover margin (+21). “Yes, that is where we are really exceptional. Washington had the top defense in the Pac-12 last year and they just built off of it this year,” said Moon. “There are a lot of guys on that defense that are going to play in the NFL one day especially in their secondary. They have two really good corners. The safety Budda Baker is one of the best in the country. They have a couple of huge defensive lineman in the interior and they have good speed on the outside. One of their best pass rushers, Joe Mathis, was injured about five weeks ago. You would have thought that would have slowed them down but it hasn’t.”
Moon, like the rest of the college football aficionados, is enamored with this year’s version of the Tide. “I have seen them play a ton. Like I said, I am a huge fan of his. This will probably be the first time I won’t root for them in a long time. Their defense is just so dominant as far as their front seven people. They just put so much pressure on you and they make you one dimensional very early in the ballgame. You really can’t run the ball against them. You find yourself trying to throw the football and because they know you can’t run they just come after you with their pass rush. They really make it difficult. They play really good man coverage in the back end. At times maybe you can take advantage of their corners because they are not the biggest guys in the world. They rally so well to the football that if a quarterback makes a mistake and throws an interception or if you fumble they score off those turnovers. They don’t just get turnovers, they score off of them. You cannot turn the football over to this defense because they turn those plays into huge scores as well as momentum shifters.”
Alabama’s balanced offense is the extreme challenge for a defense. Moon is enamored with the new addition to Saban’s offense. “The quarterback, Jalen Hurts, I love his temperament for a freshman. He just never seems to get flustered. Whether he scores a touchdown or throws an interception. So I like that about him going forward that he doesn’t let things bother him,” said the 1977 Pac-8 Player of the Year. “He is improving as a passer as the year goes along. He is definitely a great runner and scrambler and that is something we have to try and contain him in the pocket. Make him throw from the pocket and not let him get outside on the edge or he will really hurt you. They can bring a stable of running backs at you and just keep running downhill if they want to. They can also beat you on the flanks with Ardarius Stewart. He is a highlight film to watch whenever he has the ball in his hands. They have a lot of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. It all starts with Hurts and their big offensive line.”
Moon provided a winning scenario for his Alma Mater, a double-digit underdog. “I think the biggest thing is we have to take care of the ball. We can’t turn it over. We have to create some turnovers. We have to create some short fields for offense whether it is turnovers, punt returns, anything we can do to make the field shorter for our offense. We can’t expect to go 80 or 90 yards on drives against this defense and score. You have to create some short fields for yourself so you don’t have to go as far to try and score. You have got to take care of the ball and we’ve got to get some turnovers ourselves. Momentum is huge in big games like this.”
Alabama (13-0, no. 1) and Washington (12-1, no. 4) face off on Saturday at 3 PM ET in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl held at the Georgia Dome as part of the College Football Playoff Semifinal. Don James made the statement in the 2007 interview about his star pupil, Nick Saban, “He understands people, programs and football. We all learned early in our coaching career that we coach a lot better with good players. You can’t have good players unless they can run.”
Saban sought a counter move and took a page from his old mentor, downsizing the front seven to mirror the speed and quickness of the up tempo offenses. The personnel adaptation allowed Alabama’s defense to stifle and suffocate a host of opponents.
Moon and Saban will be in opposite camps come Saturday but they both can agree on the former Husky quarterback’s statement, “I have as much respect for Coach James as any man I have ever met in my life.”