Rick Neuheisel's Washington bunch finished in a three-way tie for second in the Pac-10 (along with Washington State and Stanford, two teams the Huskies beat) behind first-place Oregon. The Holiday Bowl picked Washington before its final-game embarrassment, though, and probably would have gone with either the 9-2 Cardinal or 9-2 Cougars over the 8-3 Huskies if it had waited until the end of the season to offer the bid. As it stands, Texas will face a team racing out of the top 25 with a bullet. Washington is No. 20 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll and No. 21 in the AP poll after spending the majority of the year in or on the outskirts of the top 10.
UT, of course, after flirting with and almost consummating a Rose Bowl date, is also 111.9 miles (approximately) south of its hoped for destination. Thus, perhaps this game should be called the Disappointment Bowl. And which team handles its destination disappointment the best may be the team that wins the game.
Before getting to the nuts and bolts of this Husky team, another factor aside from "want-to" has emerged: will Slick Rick slither off to another job after the final gun Friday and will his secret flirtation with the Fightin' Irish affect his team's play? Speculation is running rampant in San Diego that Neuheisel will be offered the Notre Dame job, perhaps this week. Neuheisel, of course, is saying that he has no interest in the position, but the potential doubling of his salary to 2.5-mil and the prestige of the job in South Bend, plus his history of I'm-not-going-anywhere pronouncements before bolting from Boulder to take over in Seattle make those words ring a bit hollow. If this saga continues throughout the week, it could have a distracting effect on his team as it prepares to face Texas.
Despite its colossal failure vs. the Hurricanes on the final week of the regular season and its loss to Oregon State 49-24 two weeks before that, this Washington team is a pretty good one. Not great, but good, and the Horns' recent West Coast history (three straight losses to Pac-10 teams in California) and its recent bowl history (two straight losses, including one in '00 Cotton Bowl to an Arkansas team that Texas clearly outclassed talent-wise, much like it does this Husky team), points to UW as capable of pulling the upset of the guys in the Orange and White.
If Washington keeps it close into the fourth quarter, watch out. The Huskies rallied from final quarter deficits in five of their eight wins (Michigan 23-18, Cal 31-28, USC 27-24, Arizona 31-28 and Arizona State 33-31). Washington's other three victories came over Idaho 53-3, Stanford 42-28 and Washington State 26-14. Aside from the aforementioned losses to Miami and Oregon State, the Huskies also dropped a 35-13 decision to UCLA. Essentially, Washington has either eked out a win or gotten blown out, with few results in-between. Which points to one of two things. One, the Huskies simply aren't that good or two, Neuheisel has built a gutsy team that knows how to win the close ones. I'd say it's a combination of both, which makes UW dangerous.
Washington has some talented players. The best of the bunch may be true freshman wideout Reggie Williams. Williams started 10 of UW's 11 games and totaled 973 yards on 55 catches (17.7 per) with three TDs to blow away almost all of Washington's freshman receiving records. The 6-4, 215-pounder will face his toughest test of the year, though, going up against UT's Quentin Jammer. The Longhorn corner faced several receivers similar in size and in ability to Williams during the Big 12 season and, with few exceptions, shut them down. The Huskies have dual threats at the other wideout spot, with junior converted RB Paul Arnold and senior Todd Elstrom co-starters and, along with Williams, members of the Washington O's three-wide sets. The 6-1, 200-pound Arnold hauled in 43 passes for 649 yards and the 6-3, 200-pound Elstrom caught 35 balls for 490 yards. The Longhorn defenders also must be weary of TE Jerramy Stevens. The 6-7, 260-pound senior came into the season as one of the top TEs in the country but he missed the majority of the year after breaking a bone in his foot in the second game of the season. Stevens is back healthy and caught five passes for 41 yards and a TD against Oregon State and could join the long line of TEs that have tormented Texas this season.
The guy delivering the ball to the Husky pass catchers is usually starter Cody Pickett, although Taylor Barton could also see some snaps. The 6-4 Pickett, who set many individual passing records for Washington in '01, threw for 2,403 yards in 10 games (he missed the UCLA game with a shoulder injury), completing 169 of 301 attempts with 10 TDs but also 14 INTs (five of those came against the 'Canes). Barton, who got his lone start vs. the Bruins, played in five games (he also struggled with injuries throughout the season) and completed 44 of 86 passes for 647 yards with five TDs and two INTs. During the regular season, the Washington QBs completed 18 passes for 30-plus yards, including three 70-plus yarders. Overall, the Huskies average 279.5 yards per game through the air.
As mentioned above, Washington will line up in both three-wide formations and in single-back, two-TE formations as well as two-wide, two-back, single-TE sets. Willie Hurst and Rich Alexis share time at the tailback spot, with the 5-10, 200-pound Hurst totaling 607 yards on his 138 attempts (4.4 per) and 6-0, 225-pound Alexis adding 391 yards on 125 totes (just 3.1 per carry). Both QBs are also a threat to tuck it and run, combining for 83 carries and an average of almost four yards per carry after eliminating sack yardage. As a team, the Huskies average 111.7 yards per game on the ground and total offensive numbers of 391.2 yards and 28.2 points per game.
Here's where things get ugly for Washington. In typical Pac-10 style, the Huskies' 3-4 defense surrenders 29.4 points per game and 382.6 yards to opposing offenses. Washington has held opposing Os to less than 24 points in just three of 11 games. Contrast that to the UT D's numbers. Only two teams in 12 games scored more than 17 against Carl Reese's bunch.
NT Larry Tripplett, former walk-on LB Ben Mahdavi and CB Roc Alexander are the statistical studs for the Huskies on defense. The 6-1, 295-pound Tripplett has received post-season All-American mention after his 14 TFL, two-sack senior season performance while inside 'backer Mahdavi led the team in tackles (85), sacks (five for 40 yards in losses) and fumble recoveries (four). Alexander picked off four passes and successfully defended 11 more despite being listed No. 2 on the Husky depth chart behind Chris Massey. Corners Alexander, Massey and Omare Lowe will be charged with defending the UT wideout corps.
Washington gives up ground yards in large chunks (which bodes well for the Texas running game, which may need the help if top rusher Cedric Benson can't go because of his neck injury), surrendering 162.6 per game. UCLA DeShaun Foster racked up 305 yards, including a 92-yard TD run, on Oct. 13.
The Huskies are strong in all phases of special teams. Washington is 10th in the nation in punt returns at 13.33 yards per return. Charles Frederick, a 6-0, 190-pound freshman, is one punt return short of qualifying for national honors but would rank eighth in the country with his 14.6 average if he did qualify. Alexander is sixth nationally in kickoff returns with his 29.21-yard average and took one back 95 yards for a TD. Alexander also scored against Michigan by returning a blocked field goal 87 yards to the end zone. Freshman punter Derek McLaughlin averages 41.2 yards per punt and has pinned opposing offenses inside the twenty 16 times while sending just two into the end zone for touchbacks. Despite making a pedestrian 14 of 22 field goals attempts, kicker John Anderson nailed his clutch tries, making game-winning, "walk-off" field goals against USC and Arizona State. Anderson's season-long kick was from 47.
Surprisingly, three Washington players -- TE Kevin Ware from Spring, LB Houdini Jackson from Klein Forest and S Roderick Green from Victoria -- are Texas natives. Of the three, only Green, who backs up the hard-hitting starting SS Greg Carothers, UW's second-leading tackler, is listed on the Huskies' two-deep. UT secondary coach Duane Akina earned letters in both football and basketball at the Seattle school and spent the '79 and '80 seasons as a grad assistant at Washington. Akina also coached against the Huskies throughout the 90s and in '00 as an Arizona assistant.