Number-one ranked Alabama rode three turnovers and a heck of a day running the ball by Bo Scarbrough to defeat the No. 4 Huskies 24-7 in the Peach Bowl. The result eliminated Washington from the College Football playoff.
James had seen this movie before. Interestingly enough, it started in 1986, during the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
And Alabama was once again UW’s nemesis. The Crimson Tide, led by all-everything defensive end Cornelius Bennett, who had 11 tackles in the game, won comfortably 28-6.
It was a game that changed everything for the Dawgfather. Sensing he had hit the ceiling of his program’s potential, he reset the bar.
James revamped his recruiting to go after quicker, faster defenders - guys that could fly around and cause havoc.
He also needed game-changers on offense.
So for the 1988 recruiting class, James secured signatures from players like Lincoln Kennedy, Mark Brunell, Walter Bailey, Mario Bailey, Mike Lustyk, Damon Mack, and lesser known recruits such as Dave Hoffmann, James Clifford, Jay Barry, Jaime Fields, Orlando McKay.
And some guy from eastern Washington named Steve.
That group formed the basis for 1991’s National Championship team - the same kind of team the Huskies saw Saturday in Alabama.
No one expected Washington to be in Atlanta Saturday - except Washington. Oh sure, the national experts saw improvement, and noted analyst Phil Steele even had UW as his No. 1 surprise team in the country. But he still had them 8th overall, not quite playoff material.
“Our women’s basketball team went to the Final Four,” said junior receiver John Ross. “They had a parade in front of our stadium. I told (Kevin King) this is going to be us in December. He said ‘I know.’”
Ironically, the Huskies aren’t looking for that parade anymore. They had a golden opportunity to shock the world, to pull the equivalent of Washington’s 1978 Rose Bowl win over Michigan.
When they break down the tape, they’ll realize it was three plays that absolutely crushed their hopes. The first one was Ross’s fumble that led to three points for the Crimson Tide. The next one was Ryan Anderson’s 26-yard pick-six, Alabama’s 15th defensive touchdown of the year, the most by any defense in FBS the last 20 years.
Leading into the game, Washington had not given up a defensive touchdown all season long. In fact, they’d only given up 21 points off 12 UW miscues and had only lost the turnover battle once all season long, at Utah. Alabama got 10 points off three Husky mistakes.
The third one was the dagger: a 68-yard run by Scarbrough around, over and through everyone on the field wearing purple to paydirt.
“They beat us with our own game,” UW Head Coach Chris Petersen said. “When you're playing this type of game, when the margin for error is that small, those things are going to show up.”
With the loss in the rear view, Petersen and his program are going to do exactly what James and his staff did after losing to Alabama in 1986 - they are going to get back to work.
And it starts with recruiting.
“Coming in, my 2013 class was definitely something that we had at the top of our goals - to try to get this program back to the top, back to the way that it was in the early 90s and stuff like that,” said King. “I think we definitely did that. The way we played this year I think everybody will remember this team and this year. I’m glad to be a part of one of those teams. Of course we wanted to get it done and of course that was our main goal.
“We never thought for a second that we couldn’t get this done. I don’t want that to go out there. I’m proud.”
Think of some of those 2013 signees for a minute. King, Ross, Keishawn Bierria, Lavon Coleman, Coleman Shelton, Joe Mathis, Azeem Victor, Elijah Qualls, Darrell Daniels, Cameron Van Winkle and Connor O’Brien.
They are the core group that is responsible for Saturday, and for 2016. They were Steve Sarkisian’s last recruiting group, yet were the ones developed by Petersen and his staff to where they find themselves today - Pac-12 Champions and College Football Playoff semifinalists.
They took almost everyone they played in 2016 to the woodshed. They scored 40-plus points in 10 of 14 games. They held the other team to 20 points or less nine times.
It really doesn’t matter the perception of the Pac-12 being ‘down’ or not - that’s domination. That’s taking teams behind the woodshed and not letting them go before they’ve been on the receiving end of a serious beatdown. Just ask: Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, California, Arizona State, Washington State, Colorado.
But even if you believe the conference was down, the Huskies still took care of business. Someone had to win the Pac-12, so why not them?
“That’s the standard,” Bierria said, matter-of-factly. “Now we’re pushing past that. There’s no way we’re going to come back and just have the same offseason and have the same outcome. We’re going to always going to go harder, push harder, because we know we can go harder. Hopefully next year we have a different outcome.
“We have to do better than we did last year. That’s just what we’re going to do.”
To a man, the Huskies have talked about sowing the seeds for 2016 in the trials and tribulations of 2015, as well as the off-season work they put in that got them to Atlanta.
Now Washington finds themselves at a crossroads. Do they continue to push up after learning hard lessons on the biggest stage? Or do they take that one step back after taking two big steps forward?
Who knows where the Huskies will find themselves in the final polling (third shouldn’t be out of the question at all), but this current group will have brought Washington back full circle from where they found themselves at the beginning of the millennium.
The difference between 2000 and 2016 is that everyone feels confident this year’s work was not a one-off. This wasn’t a year where Washington got lucky, got some beneficial bounces of the ball or found themselves on the happy end of an opponent implosion.
“They've seen it,” said Petersen. “They've felt it. They've tasted it a little bit. So that's good. But I think our job as coaches will be to take them back to what got us here.
“The bar has been moved forward, but we don't pick up with our new team next year right where we are here. But I feel good about the guys that we have in that locker room that will be coming back, and some really good leadership. So we feel good about all those things.”
And they should feel good about 2016. When you hear comments out of Alabama’s dressing room like linebacker Reuben Foster accusing the Huskies of cheap shots, you could look at that as no bigger compliment.
“They are the best team we’ve faced, no doubt,” said Foster’s teammate, defensive back Hootie Jones. “They didn’t make it to the playoffs for no reason.”
The Dawgfather, I fully believe, would have agreed. But he also would have also appreciated the phenomenal coaching job of his protege, Nick Saban.
In fact, the way Saban’s Crimson Tide beat Washington was vintage James: win all three phases of the game, play great field position and win the line of scrimmage and turnover battle.
But many that have connections to James and Petersen acknowledge an uncanny resemblance to the bonds created between player and coach and how that evolved into an environment where each player bled for the man next to him.
But Washington has only one win all-time versus a number-one team. That happened in the 1961 Rose Bowl versus Minnesota, 55 years ago. That’s the kind of history that was working against the Huskies Saturday night. But again, three plays.
That’s how close Washington was from achieving something that was considered impossible.
But the 2016 Huskies have routinely made impossible look…well, routine. They crushed the Oregon 12-game losing streak in remarkable fashion as the Ducks allowed the most point they had in 75 years.
They crushed the 10-game Arizona State losing streak in resounding fashion.
They had won only two of the last 11 games versus Stanford, yet stepped on the Cardinal’s throat and never let up on national tv.
They became the only team outside Oregon and Stanford to win a Pac-12 Championship game.
Yes, the Alabama loss will sting. It may even bite a bit for longer than the 24 hours it’s supposed to. You don’t get that far without holding it close when it doesn’t work out the way you prepared for.
But if you ask Chico McClatcher, he’s already past it.
“I just want to start right now in the weight room for winter workouts and just get ready for next year,” he said. “I’m ready to take on that leadership role as a junior and help my team win.”
The bar has been set. The expectations have been established.
Now as James would have probably told the team in the locker room - it’s time to go back to work.