Preamble: I was forced to miss my broadcast of Stanford versus Arizona State to attend a memorial service in Seattle for my recently-deceased high school football coach. (Truth be told, it wasn't a hard decision - Coach Robbins got me into football and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.) I contacted UW sports information about the game, which told me the press box was packed with media, but that they would issue me a ticket and a postgame-only press pass. Hey, got me in the gate!
Prelude: Friday night sports talk radio focuses on the #1 team invading Montlake. The Seattle area, crawling with Cougar alums, got a peek at USC last week as Washington State took a 47-14 loss in Los Angeles. Areas of concern for Husky fans include tailback Louis Rankin, a senior-laden D-line that's not getting the job done, and the limited passing abilities of otherwise powerhouse quarterback Jake Locker.
The consensus seems to be "UW has to be competitive" after a poor 44-31 loss to UCLA the previous week. One reporter predicts 35-0 in favor of the Trojans. Rain is in the forecast. (Spring and summer are beautiful in western Washington, but it does drizzle in the winter and fall. Having done both, it's far better than Northeastern snow.)
Pregame: After a lively tailgate that included watching Oregon's Cameron Colvin (the same that went deep for a touchdown against the Cardinal) fumble away the Ducks' chance to tie the game against Cal, I enter the stadium with my pals. A pregnant woman and her brother who had a couple of beers at the tailgate, they both take a moment to visit their friend "John".
We can already hear "Tribute to Troy" being blared. Where I am sitting, almost no high-pitched sound reaches us (must be the FieldTurf absorbing it) but I can feel the bass drums concussing across the stadium.
Husky Stadium is really a beautiful facility, although it is a bit dated. A bowl dug into the ground on the shore of Lake Washington produces an open east end, beyond which is the softball field and a makeshift harbor where the gentrified solons of Seattle sail to the game on yachts. (Bill Gates' shorefront neighborhood of Medina is just four miles across the lake.)
The upper decks on either sideline create a characteristic "Z" shape, with the entire architecture producing bizarre swirling wind patterns. Personal note: I once used said wind patterns to my advantage when pole vaulting in league meets in Husky Stadium.
It is cold, with rainclouds threatening, and I am festooned in a longsleeved Nike acrylic shirt, Stanford pullover (whose logo I proudly boast) and a waterproof jacket to go with boots and jeans. Husky games after mid-September are definitely outdoorsy activities.
Word of Oregon's loss is announced to the crowd, which roars with joy at the fall of UW's biggest out-of-state rival. (UW and UO fans loathe one another - when you get that many treehuggers and Volvo-drivers together every year there's bound to be trouble.)
Washington comes out of the tunnel to the tune of a constant air raid siren tone. They are wearing some sort of throwback uniforms, with no names on the jerseys and gold helmets without the purple "W." They look something like Notre Dame (uh oh).
In a nice move on the university's part, the students occupy a large section centered around the 50-yard-line amidst the Husky marching band, proudly playing "Bow Down to Washington." The only visitors "bowing" in Husky Stadium the past few years have been the drum majors and national anthem singers. Speaking of which, the opening song is punctuated with a flyover by three jets. (Seattle has Army, Navy and Air Force installations nearby, including a nuclear submarine enclave.)
First quarter: USC defers the coin toss, Washington receives and deploys Jake Locker, 6-3, 225 and allegedly the best quarterback prospect to ever come out of the state's high schools. That's a big statement, considering Drew Bledsoe, the Huard brothers and Marques Tuiasosopo. Wearing #10, he draws comparisons to a white Vince Young.
Locker is without question the quarterback of the future; whether the redshirt freshman is the quarterback of the present is still under discussion. He gets knocks for accuracy and playing with a stripped-down passing game, but big plusses for speed, power and a 37-4 record as a starter at powerhouse Ferndale High School, including a state title.
The stadium is now packed with purple. I was expecting more USC coverage, but the ketchup and mustard pullovers are only to be seen in a thin strip. The SC Song Girls have donned ponchos against the thin rain, although they ditch them quickly when the rain stops.
USC opens the game with an encroachment penalty, which kick-starts a 10-play UW drive. Locker shows his stuff on a third & 12, when he drops back, dashes out of the pocket to his right, then decides to tuck it and run. He gets just beyond the first-down marker before going out of bounds, where he is then crushed by a USC defender. A 15-yard penalty is tacked on. UW gets another first down on a roughing the passer call. Locker throws an interception on the goal line to end the drive.
A large and possibly inebriated fellow informs me that Husky running back Louis Rankin's nickname is "SuperCuts," mocking his tendency to dance in the backfield.
Trojans QB John David Booty throws his first interception on the next drive, and USC gets hit for another personal foul on the return. Locker pulls off an electrifying third down conversion, rolling to his left and finding a receiver downfield. Oops - he was beyond the line of scrimmage when he threw the pass. The Huskies have to punt.
More bad news for the Trojans: already down two cornerbacks, USC loses its center and right guard on the same play.
Second quarter: USC's first full drive of the second quarter ends quickly, with Booty fumbling the first snap into Washington's hands at his own 14. Two plays later, Locker bursts downfield and dives into the end zone for 10-yard touchdown. The place explodes with the sort of energy they haven't had at Montlake in years.
Southern California comes right back, with Booty leading a six-play scoring drive highlighted by three completions to Patrick Turner for a combined 55 yards. Turner's 23-yard reception on third & one provides the points that tie the game. The large, possibly inebriated man next to me begins to denounce Husky defensive coordinator Kent Baer (who served in the same capacity at Stanford under Willingham).
UW's next drive shows the shortcomings of the Huskies' passing game, with Locker unable to string together completions. It's possible the offensive staff is concerned about the speed and talent of the Trojan defense, but there has to be someone they can send downfield on something other than slants and crossing routes.
After several plays of shorter gains, SC's Stafon Johnson busts a 45-yard run and scores two plays later for the Trojans' first lead of the day, but two drives later Booty makes another mistake. A misfired deep pass is tipped into the hands of junior Husky safety Mesphin Forrester, who weaves through Trojan players for a spectacular 54-yard return that pulls Washington even again with 2:03 left in the half.
The emotion doesn't last, killed by a big kickoff return and a 53-yard run by Chauncey Washington. USC can't punch it in, however, settling for a field goal and a 17-14 halftime lead.
Halftime: The reason for the throwback uniforms is revealed - they honor the 1960 Husky team, only now being officially recognized by the university as national champions. With a 9-1 record, they beat an 8-1 Minnesota team in the Rose Bowl, but because the AP and UPI still named a national champion before the bowls were played, the Gophers had already been crowned "national champions".
Two polls named their champions after the bowls, splitting their choices between Washington (Helms Foundation) and Ole Miss (Football Writers Association). A new flag is raised adding 1960 to 1991 as Husky national title years, with a pair of placards unveiled highlighting both years.
I normally don't care for throwback uniforms (too many NFL teams wearing hideous designs from the past for the novelty/merchandise angle), but I think celebrating great moments in your school's tradition sometimes calls for it. That it happened to be honoring the only time UW has ever beaten a top-ranked team made it even more appropriate.
Third quarter: USC appears to be taking control of the ballgame with a 12-play drive, but a holding penalty stalls the series and David Buehler misses a 33-yard field goal wide left. Buehler? Buehler?
The Trojans don't seem to be able to impress a killer instinct on the Huskies, and they aren't helped by their own penalties. Five top-10 teams have already lost, and the packed Husky crowd is starting to believe this could be the game that proves their program is back.
But UW goes three & out on the next series, with Locker overthrowing an open tight end, and USC pounds out a 60-play touchdown drive capped by a 32-yard pass to tight end Fred Davis and a one-yard touchdown run by Chauncey.
Fourth quarter: The game almost comes apart for USC in a sequence starting at the end of the third quarter when a Trojan is called for fair-catch interference, a 15-yard penalty giving UW the ball at the USC 43. Locker converts his first third down since the first quarter, then the Huskies get a break when a Rankin fumble is recovered by a Dawg teammate.
It wouldn't be the only break of the drive. Facing a third & 19, another Locker overthrow is nullified by a pass interference flag. Two plays later Locker again overthrows an open man near the goal line, but is saved by the zebras again as Pete Carroll angrily (and futilely) argues that the pass wasn't catchable.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink - Locker can't find senior wide receiver Anthony Russo on third down and the Huskies are forced to settle for a field goal. USC leads, 24-17.
USC has spent most of the second half running up a 250-plus yard advantage in total offense. Out of whack stat: neither team recorded a sack through the first three quarters. The very thin rain has returned but doesn't seem to bother the crowd or the players.
After a series of penalties by both sides on the next drive, USC fails to gain a first down and is forced to punt. Anthony Russo fields the kick at his own 48, and as he makes a move he's hit by a Trojan player and coughs up the ball. USC recovers. A touchdown will end the game. (With that kind of field position, why even field the punt? Even with a bounce it's still going to be a short field.)
Washington appears to have one final chance when cornerback Byron Davenport intercepts Booty in the endzone. But no - the call is overturned on review, with replays showing the ball hit the turf before Davenport could establish possession. USC kicks a field goal and leads 27-17 with three minutes to go.
Only a fool would think the game was over, and "SuperCuts" Rankin brings the kickoff out to midfield. UW turns it over on downs, but after USC can't gain a first down, junior punter Greg Woidneck bobbles the long snap and gets the kick blocked. Washington senior corner Roy Lewis takes it to the Trojan nine-yard-line, with Locker scoring three plays later. With 29 seconds to play, UW is down three points.
USC makes the final play of the night, recovering the onside kick, and escapes Husky Stadium with a 27-24 win. In a mistake-filled contest, UW just made two or three more blunders than Southern California.
The Trojans do not join the ranked ranks that lost Saturday. USC goes to 4-0, UW to 2-3.
Postmortem: Those who saw the score - USC by three in Seattle - might be tempted to factor in homefield advantage and think that UW is back. That would be simplistic and incorrect. USC tried to give the game away in many ways, and Trojan mistakes - 16 penalties for 161 yards, two interceptions, a fumbled center snap, a muffed punt snap that led to a block, and a missed field goal - would have been enough to lose on the road against a team that could capitalize. The voters noticed, lifting LSU above USC to the #1 spot in both polls. With trips to Oregon, Cal and opportunistic Arizona State on the docket, USC had better shore things up before the trip to Notre Dame on the 20th.
The Huskies were definitely competitive as required, and can feel they took another step in the rebuilding - playing a top team tough. Theories abound that Locker got hurt on the big hit in the first quarter, affecting his mental game. Most likely he was both playing battered and simply hasn't progressed enough to take over a game the way a great quarterback does. Booty didn't look particularly impressive either - finding receivers better than Locker, but throwing two poor interceptions (and a third that was overturned) and failing to demonstrate big-play ability.
I think the Trojans need to find "go-to" playmakers - the Bush/Jarrett types that they know they can call on. The by-committee approach can gain yardage, but in a close games they'll need someone to take the team on his back, and they still haven't found a game-breaking receiver. Reliable tight end Fred Davis lacks the explosive ability to burn a defense.
For UW, Locker has to stay healthy and serious receiving threats need to emerge (or be recruited) that can perform without being set up by the running game. A talent upgrade around an improved Locker will turn Washington into a Pac-10 contender. In the shorter term, with a well-executed gameplan, I think Stanford can move the ball on the Huskies, and controlling Locker will have to be job 1, 2, and 3 for a Cardinal defense that couldn't do the same against a far better passer in Oregon' Dennis Dixon.
Outlook for this Saturday: Pete Carroll's USC team almost never plays two bad games in a row. They lost three solid players mid-game, and they'll have the replacements ready by Saturday. The Trojans will be looking to take care of business. If it is true that #2 tries harder, USC's drop in the polls might be extra motivation. Expect a much crisper Trojan team in the Coliseum.
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