The Purple Reign Defense

Any discussion of the 1984 Washington Huskies revolves around the singular most important pillar in Washington's football history. That pillar is defense. And oh-what-a-defense Jim Lambright and Don James put on the field back in 1984.

As Gilmore Dobie once said of Washington's opponents, "they can't beat you if they can't score on you."

The 1984 season featured a great defense of the ages. Simultaneously, the rock star Prince had a popular movie out in theaters called "Purple Rain". Someone clever changed a couple of letters and mentioned it to someone, and the next thing you knew everyone was referencing it and having fun with it. So fantastic was this nickname, that Husky fans and PR people felt compelled to keep at this in future seasons, and came up with some awful nicknames like Purple Haze & Purple Storm.

Thus, while everyone was dancing to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy", Husky fans were witnessing a defense that drove offensive coordinators crazy.

This 1984 team had some quality offensive players, but as a core that sometimes struggled mightily, it was perhaps more befitting a 6-5 team. A quarterback switch after game seven wound up increasing the productivity a bit, but it was the defense that carried this group.

They set the tone and were such a powerful unit. Present on that team were three future first round draft choices, DE Reggie Rogers, DT Ronnie Holmes and LB Joe Kelly. Collectively they were one of the most dominant stopping units in school history. Even if the Husky offense only managed 109 yards and three first downs for an entire game (as they did against Oregon), the defense simply denied red-zone access to opponents and came up with big plays and sacks when needed.

In the season opener against the then-pitiful Northwestern Wildcats, Washington won handily by a 26-0 count. It didn't garner much attention, as everyone's focus was on the next week's game, at Michigan. Still, linebacker Tim Meamber recorded a tremendous game, with 3 interceptions, a recovered blocked field goal and 11 tackles. Washington's defense produced six turnovers that day. This would be a common theme throughout the year.

The next week on the road, Washington faced the 2nd-ranked Michigan Wolverines. Defensive tackles Reggie Rogers and Ron Holmes were all over the field and Washington throttled Michigan's offense. The play of the game was Vestee Jackson's spectacular diving interception, fully extended and leaping in front of the Michigan receiver. Until a meaningless touchdown in the final seconds, the Huskies had a commanding 20-3 lead and the Pac-10 was on notice. The following day, the headline of the Seattle Times read: UNDERDAWGS TAKE A BITE OUT OF MICHIGAN.

Three weeks later the Huskies had all they could handle against Oregon State in Corvallis. The offense sputtered along like an asthmatic old appliance, but the stellar defense limited the Beavs to just seven points. The inspirational and tough safety Jimmy Rodgers had the play of the game, when he roared in on 4th down and blocked a punt with his throat. The Dawgs escaped 19-7 to remain undefeated with a 5-0 record.

It was becoming clear that something extraordinary was developing on the defensive side of the ball on this squad.

A few years ago Jimmy Rodgers looked back. "It was very special. I still get excited when I think about that defense. We didn't care what went on around us. We were very focused. We knew we could control everything."

Washington topped the Associated Press rankings at this point. They whipped Stanford 37-15 as linebacker Joe Kelly returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown. The following week they edged past Oregon 17-10, despite one of the poorest offensive productions in school history. Oregon's head coach Rich Brooks was flummoxed, as his team had held the nation's #1 team to 109 yards and 3 first downs.


A punt return for touchdown by Ronnie Milus, and a recovered blocked punt for a touchdown by Mike Gaffney, put the needed points on the board. Reggie Rogers had a late hit of Oregon QB Chris Miller. This knocked him out of the game, and also had the Ducks (rightfully) fuming.

Of that year, and the conservative Don James offense, Jimmy Rogers reminisced: "There were times when I played, that I totally disagreed with him (James) on his offensive schemes, on everything. In my last year (1984) our defense actually played two seasons (minutes). By the time it was over, we were all beat to hell. I just didn't think it took that much to get some kind of offense going."

The following week the offense again struggled, but Washington's Purple Reign wreaked such incredible havoc. They induced nine Arizona turnovers! The play of the game was to be had by D-Lineman Steve Alvord, who returned an intercepted fumble for a touchdown. The Huskies won 28-12. The record went to 9-0 the next week, when Jacque Robinson ran wild. The Husky D, led by the great play of LB Fred Small, sacked Cal QB Gale Gilbert into submission. Final score, Washington 44, California 14.

The season's only blemish came a week later in the Coliseum in Los Angeles. The defense played a quality game, but other than a Jacque Robinson touchdown run around left end, the offense coughed, gasped and wheezed. The Trojans won 16-7 in playing a turnover-free game. After the game DL Tony Lewis could be seen lying face down on the turf crying. It was tough to stomach.

The Apple Cup was great finish to a stellar regular season. With Orange Bowl officials flying in to Pullman to determine if Washington was deemed worthy a bid, Jacque Robinson put on a clinic by rushing for 160 yards.

Jacque was inspired when word got back to him that the WSU scout team was making fun of his weight by stuffing towels up their shirts when imitating him in practice.

Bad move, Cougs. Robinson shredded the sorry unit from Pullman, the defense contained Mark Rypien, and Ronnie Holmes had yet another big game, recording a safety with a big tackle. Husky fans sitting in the end zone jubilantly lobbed Oranges toward the players, as Washington won 38-29. For the Orange Bowl officials, it was the first time that they had seen Washington that year. Ironically, one of the comments they made was how much they liked that Husky offense. Mike Lude must have just smirked and enthusiastically nodded while shaking their hands.

Washington thus became the first (and to date, only) west coast team to play in the Orange Bow game. Oklahoma was big and bad and ranked #2. NT Tony Casillas, LB Brian Bosworth, RB Steve Sewell and coach Barry Switzer seemed enough justification for a 14-point spread in Las Vegas.

But Don James and Gary Pinkel came up with a great scheme to utilize Oklahoma's simple-minded, bull-rush defensive attack against them. Brilliant traps by offensive linemen kept Casillas at bay and provided gigantic holes so Jacque Robinson and Rick Fenney could run to daylight. Against a Sooner defense surrendering only 62 rushing yards a game, Jacque went for 135 yards and Rick went for an additional 66.

Defensive Coordinator Jim Lambright devised a tremendous five-linebacker scheme that spread out the vaunted Sooner wishbone attack and put the heat on QB Danny Bradley all night long. In place of injured Joe Krakowski, Lambright started freshman David Rill and the Purple Reign never skipped a beat.

Many consider the play of the game to have been the delay of game penalty on the Sooner Schooner, which took three points off the board and forced Oklahoma into a 40+ yard field goal. It was then stuffed by the hard-hitting and competitive Tim Peoples.

But also deserving mention would be Ronnie Holmes, flying in on the pass rush to bat a pass into the air, a wounded duck for Joe Kelly to grab and return to the 1-yard line. This play iced the game. Washington 28, Oklahoma 17.

Washington finished 11-1 and wound up ranked #2 in both major polls. #1 went to Robbie Boscoe's BYU team that went 13-0, but didn't beat a single ranked team. They won a come-from-behind Holiday Bowl game over a 6-6 Michigan squad to earn the throne.

Heady stuff, indeed.

While the rock star Prince's popularity has waned in the intervening years, Washington's on-the-field success, in general, has not. The musician wasn't able to put out a movie in time to capture the Bad to the Bone 1991 defense, so he owes us another movie.

With young talents like LB Joseph Lobendahn, CB Derrick Johnson, and DL Tui Alailefaleula about to come into their own, perhaps the Huskies will soon provide him with yet another reason to put out a flick with a catchy phrase.

Let's just hope he keeps those bizarre, Moulin Rouge-esque outfits to a minimum. After all, the Huskies have an image of toughness to protect.
Starting Orange Bowl "Purple Reign" 5-linebacker Defense:
DT Ron Holmes
DT Steve Alvord
OLB Joe Kelly
OLB Fred Small
ILB Tim Meamber
ILB David Rill
OLB Ron Hadley
FS Jim Rodgers
SS Tim Peoples
CB Vestee Jackson
CB Ron Milus
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories