New rulers of the Northwest

It was in November 2002, while former UW Coach Rick Neuheisel was frantically attempting CPR on the lore of Washington dominance, that he conjured up the notion of a "Northwest Championship."

The Huskies were 4-5 at the time, their running game stunk, and fans were starting to get edgy about the direction of the program.

At least provisionally, Neuheisel's NWC ploy seemed brilliant when Washington rallied to run the table in beating Oregon State, Oregon and Washington State.

Amidst the excitement of salvaging a wining season, the inevitable discussions started up about bowl game prospects and something curious occurred. The nation's #1 scoring team, the little-noticed Boise State Broncos, were publicly scoffing at speculation that Washington might be their bowl game opponent.

They wanted someone tougher, they said.

The Dawgman.com message boards immediately broke out into several threads of scoffing and eye-rolling. The general consensus was that Boise State's comments were the equivalent of someone's kid brother getting lippy. Nobody paid it too much mind.

As it turned out, the Broncos crushed Iowa State in the Humanitarian Bowl to finish the season with a 12-1 record and ranked #12 in the nation. Meanwhile, the Huskies ventured south to the Sun Bowl, where they were humbled by a mediocre Purdue team 34-17.

Four years later - January 2007 - the hierarchy of northwest college football is in flux. Washington, who dominated the region from 1900-1993, finds itself at the bottom of the heap, having gone 8-26 the past three seasons. The Oregon Ducks, the most underachieving team in America, embarrassed themselves and the Pac-10 by rolling over recently to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Oregon State Beavers, in salvaging the job of their Coach Mike Riley with a string of victories, still remain a poor cousin, although richest of the Pac-10 regional schools.

And the Washington State Cougars - Well, everyone saw how they choked away the Apple Cup—which lends some credence to the saying: The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Speaking of expressions, Shakespeare stated that there was small choice in rotten apples. With the Pac-10's balance of power weighted heavily toward California, and little to cheer for in the Northwest, Monday night's Fiesta Bowl match-up pitting Boise State against mighty Oklahoma, percolated with intrigue.

What followed was one of the most exciting and enjoyable games seen in years. Perhaps decades. It was an instant classic. Everyone saw Boise's exhilarating trick plays-- like the hook-and-ladder pass for a miracle touchdown, and the astonishing statue of liberty play for the winning two-point conversion. But what stood out were their incredibly sound fundamentals.

The textbook tackling, the intelligent angles taken toward ball carriers and the physical play up front in the trenches all made one wonder why the other northwest schools aren't developing players in this manner.

The Broncos' thrilling 43-42 win over the Sooners sent shockwaves through the state of Washington. Cougar fans began kvetching about the slew of recruits they will soon be losing to Boise State, while Husky fans gulped at the realization that the Broncos come to Seattle next fall.

"We went 13-0 and beat everyone on our schedule," BSU quarterback Jared Zabransky said after Monday's game. "We deserve a chance at the national title."

Actually, Boise State doesn't. Despite the fireworks of their season-finale, their strength of schedule does not warrant that kind of respect. Had the Broncos played in the Big Ten, Big 12 or SEC, they most certainly would have dropped 2-3 games.

But from the vantage point of the Northwest, Boise State's thrilling emergence into the national spotlight signals that times have changed. The Western Athletic Conference, which the Broncos won for the fifth straight year, is growing in esteem. The top of the standings feature up-and-comers such as Nevada (8-4), San Jose State (8-4) and Hawaii (10-3). Boise State's Fiesta Bowl win also exemplified the further weakened state of the overall Pac-10 Conference, when compared and contrasted. Only USC (11-2), California (10-3) and Oregon State (10-4) had seasons to be respected.

From there, the drop-off in the standings is as steep as going over Snoqualmie Falls in a barrel.

From the vantage point of the Pac-10, the hopes are for incoming Coach Dennis Erickson to awaken a sleeping giant at Arizona State; for Oregon to replace the overrated Mike Bellotti with someone who can maximize the Ducks' potential; and for California to keep Coach Jeff Tedford happy with promised stadium and facility renovations.

From the vantage point of Seattle, Boise State's triumph raises Washington's need to win now -- to CODE RED.

Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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