Husky players, desperate for a win in what was fast becoming a boulder rolling downhill type of season, seemed to be ready to explode and then it happened. For the first time in several years, the Huskies showed the grit and determination necessary to pound an opponent into submission and they did it with relish.
RB Louis Rankin, who had rushed for over 100 yards for the first time two weeks earlier, topped his career-high versus Air Force, with a 19 carry 119-yard effort and another first – his first touchdown as a Husky.
"It was really exciting – the whole thing," Rankin said. "It felt like a dream until I got into the end zone."
Rankin's 48-yard scamper is the longest touchdown run for a Husky since Shelton Sampson's 77 yard touchdown run against Oregon in 2003. Rankin said the holes were there all day and that all he and the other running backs had to do was hit them.
"It was really open today. A lot of things were open today," Rankin said commending his offensive line. "That's why we were able to run and pass the ball. It was really fluid and everything went fine today.
"Whenever I go in there, I know a lot of guys are depending on me. I've just got to try and go in there and get after it and I think I did that today."
While Rankin was the big player on offense, the defense had a few standouts – DT Manase Hopoi chief among them. Hopoi had four sacks and numerous quarterback pressures and seemed like a man on a mission throughout the entire 60 minutes.
"I was just motivated," the senior for Sacramento said. "Coach (Randy) Hart was getting on us, saying we weren't getting a pass rush so I tried my best to get after them. I saw the WSU game and the UNLV game and I saw their D-linemen get some sacks so I thought, ‘Why not me?', so I tried to get after it as best I could and use my quickness as an advantage."
Hopoi, who has seen the good times and bad times along Montlake, is ready for next week's game against Notre Dame and for the rest of the season and thinks yesterday's game was a sort of stepping stone for the team.
"This is a starting point," Hopoi said emphatically. "We did a lot of things right today. We made some mistakes, but none that cost us the game. I think it's a step in the right direction. We're going to get ready for Notre Dame because we know their coming with all they've got."
Another player who made his presence felt was Mike Mapuolesega and he had what has been a rarity for the Huskies over the last decade, a blocked punt.
"We were talking to the guys along the line and I was telling them ‘don't be scared, we're not going to do anything'," Mapuolesega said with a huge grin on his face. "And the second they snapped the ball and they didn't even block me and I just ran straight at the punter and blocked it.
"We caught them bad. They thought we were in a punt-safe and we surprised them by rushing it and I got lucky and blocked it."
Cornerback Josh Okoebor, who took a lot of the blame for the Air Force loss on himself, acquitted himself nicely yesterday with his first interception early in game giving the Huskies excellent field-position.
"I saw the tight end run a corner route and then there was an out-route right under it," Okoebor said. "I saw the quarterback drop back and knew he was going to throw it to the short side of the field, so I jumped it. I saw the ball the whole way – it was mine. I wish I would've stayed up so I could have run it back, but hey, there's always next week."
LB Joe Lobendahn had similar things to say regarding his first career interception which came in the middle of the third quarter. "I read the quarterback's shoulder's and knew where he was going," Lobendahn said. "The ball just popped up and I dove for it and got it. I wish I could have stayed up because I wanted to show some of my moves, but we got the ball back and that's the most important thing."
As the players were being interviewed, a rarity around these parts in recent times began to make its presence felt, smiles on the players' faces. This is a game that is supposed to be fun and for many Husky teams, it has been fun. For this group however, the fun has been a rarity and they seemed to enjoy what they had wrought on the Husky Stadium turf.
"This feels so good, it's hard to even describe it," DT Donny Mateaki said, yet another wide smile painted on his face. "We know we have a tough game coming up next week, but right now, this just feels so good. I love winning, winning is fun. We've worked hard and it's beginning to pay off. We had a lot of fun out there."
SS C.J. Wallace said the intensity was really what showed itself today. "We were really intense all week," Wallace said regarding the practices the coaches ran. "We had a great week of practice. We were really focused and now we have to keep that focus. I think some of us are starting to learn what it takes to win, we have to stay focused all the time, even when we aren't playing.
"To me, this was fun. We watched that '91 defense in the offseason and they were always intense, flying to the ball and having fun. We want to take it a step even higher. I mean they were perfect, the national champs, if we can do that, then who knows what can happen?"
Junior LB Scott White, who had a great game the week before versus Cal, said the feeling after the game is something he hasn't seen in a while. "You can feel the energy in this locker room," White said. "Everybody's excited. Everybody's upbeat. We've got to keep it going. We had a lot of good things going for us out there. Hopefully this will springboard us into the heart of our season now."
Offensively, TE Johnnie Kirton appears to be feeling more at home every week at his new position. He had his first touchdown and a Husky and also spoke to how this game is going to propel the Dawgs for the rest of the season.
"We all feel like we've won before, but the excitement down in the locker room right now is just about having a good time," Kirton said. "At the same time we know that tomorrow we've got to get up and put in that work for Notre Dame, which we're very excited to play at home and get after it again."
"This is a game we needed," QB Isaiah Stanback said, taking in everything after his first win as the Husky starter. "We needed more confidence. We needed to remember how this feels and we needed it to jumpstart the rest of our season.
"We didn't play as well as we could have. I didn't get off to as good a start as I wanted to, but as long as we get the ‘W' that's all that matters."
Now all that matters to the Huskies is the Fighting Irish who come to Husky Stadium on a bit of a down note after losing their home opener against Michigan State on Saturday 44-41 in overtime. Lots of subplots will be in play as the Huskies try to even their record, but as for the players, they know what they have to do.
"He just said to remember the moment," Stanback said regarding head coach Tyrone Willingham's post game speech. "Remember how it feels and remember how we prepared this week. We had a great week of practice, so he just told us to remember this in the back of our heads, so we can resort back to it."
Are these new Huskies ready to resort to the teams of yore, when the Huskies defended their turf like their lives depended on it? Or will they revert to recent seasons and fold when something bad happens?
The clouds around the Husky program opened enough to show some light at the end of the tunnel, but as Willingham has said recently, "we just have to figure out how to get to it."
They found some of that light against Idaho and for many around Husky stadium on Saturday, it's about time.
Players finally have fun in win over Idaho
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