Momentous victory brings things full circle

It was thirteen years ago, upon this same field in Arizona, that a game signified the beginning of the end. That was the week that the Billy Joe Hobert story broke in the Seattle Times. Hobert, a junior quarterback, had taken a $50,000 dollar loan from a family friend. News of this facilitated the infamous Pac-10 investigation, that ultimately resulted in sanctions. Hobert was suspended and never took another snap at Washington.

The Huskies subsequently traveled to Tucson riding an historic 22-game winning streak. They were currently 8-0 and ranked #1 in the nation.

Late in the fourth quarter, with less than a minute left, Arizona had the ball on the Husky 1-yard line. The Wildcats led the Huskies 9-3, and their fans were preparing to stampede the field. Albeit necessary and inevitable, it always breaks the heart to see something cherished come to the end of its life.

Earlier this year, Washington's All-American linebacker (and current Secret Service agent) Dave Hoffmann was asked about the final seconds of that 1992 game. Hoffmann was the acknowledged patriarch of the famous Husky defenses of the early 1990s.

"What a freakin' war," he said. "I hit my ass off that day. I always loved playing in the heat and on the grass.  I also loved wearing the black hat and walking into the other guys' house.  I enjoyed road games at least as much as Husky stadium.  We played a great defensive game and we knew we had to because our offense really struggled that day.  We, on defense, felt like we needed to score somehow, and we just couldn't get it done.  I remember Jamal Fountaine and D'marco Farr coming up to me after we broke the huddle for the last time, there were only a few seconds left, and they told me that they loved me, and gave me a big hug.  They came to me because it was the end of a long string of dominating victories and they knew how I felt.  I really appreciated them. It was a momentous occasion.  That day was awesome though….violence, sweat, blood, dirt, competition…..it was a great battle.  I was so shot, that after the game I could not stop throwing up until I got home to my bed in Seattle that night.  I had blown all the capillaries in my eyes from all the dry heaving.  I woke up the next morning and my eyes were pure red from the blood…I scared the crap out of myself when I looked in the mirror."

In the thirteen years since, Husky football had been put through the wringer. In-house politics, devastating sanctions, a litany of scandals, several years of ineffectual recruiting and a lack of investment in the program, led Washington to the point where they had lost 14 consecutive conference games. Their most recent defeat against Oregon State was rock bottom. Inept performances dominated virtually every aspect of the game. Washington football had become the filthy doormat of the Pac-10.

They say that God works in mysterious ways. They also say that there is a season to all things. This past Saturday, late in the first half against Arizona, the Huskies trailed 14-7. Although they were running the ball and tackling effectively, they were mired in their usual ineptitude. They had thrown errant passes, dropped catch-able passes, committed penalties, exercised poor clock management, and seemed, again, to be their own worse enemy.

With mere seconds left in the first half, Husky QB Isaiah Stanback took the snap. He dropped back to pass, felt the pressure from Arizona's rush, and was promptly sacked at his own 31-yard line. Washington coach Tyrone Willingham signaled to just run the clock out. Stanback, who was benched just a week earlier, surprised his coaches and teammates by calling for a timeout. He huddled with Willingham and pleaded successfully for the chance to throw a deep ball.

As he gathered his teammates in the huddle and called the play, center Brad Vanneman thought to himself, "there's no way." Stanback came up to the line of scrimmage. Up in the coaches' box, Husky offensive coordinator Tim Lappano had already gotten up and left, heading for the elevator. He rushed back after realizing his offense was lining up to run another play. Lappano watched as his quarterback took the snap and dropped back, positioned himself and then launched a tight spiral deep into the Arizona night.

Husky wide receiver Craig Chambers was racing down the far right side. He had gotten behind the defensive backs. With each stride, his eyes grew wider. Stanback's throw was in the process of traveling at least seventy yards.

"I got to the 20-yard line, I turned around to look for the ball and thought, ‘Oh, (no),'" said Chambers. "It seemed like the ball was in the air forever and all the sudden a space opened up and it fell into my hands... I picked up my stride a little bit and got to the end zone. I've never seen anybody throw the ball that far. It was amazing."

"He just launched it," said Lappano. "I was on my way out of the box, and I just saw (Chambers) reach, and I said, ‘Oh, my God.' It was unbelievable."

It was pure bedlam on the Washington sideline. For once, something electrifyingly positive had happened. Placekicker Evan Knudson's PAT then sailed between the uprights, and the Huskies had tied the game at 14-14.

Momentous plays of that nature don't occur to teams that aren't destined to win. Most Washington fans cautiously but instinctively sensed that truth during halftime. The Stanback-to-Chambers Hail Mary pass was the stuff of legend. It will be talked about fifty years from now.

"I don't think (the Arizona defenders) felt I could get it down there," said Stanback. "I think it surprised them. That was a big momentum swing for us and gave us a different mindset going into the half than it would have being down 14-7. It was like, 'Hey, things are happening for a reason. Let's take advantage of it this time.' "

Husky fans listening to the radio broadcast back in Washington had additional chills go up their spines as Tyrone Willingham was interviewed coming off the field. Normally, it would be a toss-up as to what is drier-- the Arizona desert or Willingham's personality. But asked about the miraculous play that had just occurred, Willingham's enthused voice was heard through radio speakers to say, "That was a HELL of an effort!"

Washington emerged from the locker room a different team. The offensive line dominated; running back James Sims bulled his way for 200 rushing yards on the day. The defense played inspired and confident, forcing five turnovers. In the end, for the final 30:07 of the game, the Huskies outscored the Wildcats 31-0.

Obviously there will still be struggles in the future. But in the same manner that Kenny Wheaton's legendary interception of a Husky pass in 1994 was an instant springboard to better fortunes for the Oregon Ducks—so too will Stanback-to-Chambers rejuvenate Husky football. After the Huskies sang Bow Down to Washington with their band and the approximately 1,500 fans that traveled, Coach Willingham headed toward the locker room. It was the same pathway that former coach Don James had taken after the 1992 game, when Arizona fans rubbed in the victory and erroneously taunted him for paying his players.

When Willingham addressed the media this past Saturday, he was asked about his Washington Huskies. He answered in his usual temperate voice. "I told them to enjoy it," he said. "This is what all these weekends should be about: having this kind of opportunity and this kind of feeling. It's a good win."
Derek Johnson can be reached at Derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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