2002: The Good, the Bad, and the Ducky

The scene Saturday night at Martin Stadium could only be described as <b><I>sublime</I></b>.

After a stupendous, game-ending play by Kai Ellis' brought things to a climactic finish, the ebullient Huskies poured forth from their sideline to celebrate. After this play by Ellis (which will be talked about for decades), every conceivable human emotion was on display.

Soaring like an eagle was the spirit of the Washington team, as the players conglomerated with their streaming fans at midfield. They were all laughing, shouting, hugging and happily screaming at each other. Through beaming smiles some were even crying tears of joy. The ecstasy came from a place deep within the heart, which swelled and overflowed with pride and joy. For these Huskies played hard, won an epic battle, and each of them will be looked upon with pride from their family and friends. They now have a memory to hold onto and cherish, with their future kids and friends in the years to come.

Intermixed within this scene were the stunned Washington State Cougars. They somberly filed out toward the locker room. For them, so much was lost on Saturday night, not the least of which was the #3 national ranking. The dejection and feelings of loss are almost unbearable. Losing a game like this, when on the verge of accomplishing so much of historical significance, is a void that will never fully go away. Being on the losing end in games like this, the soul takes a bludgeoning. It can be so very difficult to cope.

Just ask the 1982 Washington Huskies what their legacy is.

Given the way in which this bizarre season started with the devastating loss at Michigan, I suppose it is only fitting that it finishes in such a stunning fashion.

As Chuck Knox used to say, sometimes you can only know where you're going, by looking back at where you've been. Herein, is a look at each week from this season, along with selected quotes from my articles that serve as a barometer for where we were at emotionally throughout this journey…

Michigan 29, Washington 28

In the wake of Washington's implausible defeat, I likened the defeat to setting the stage for a possibly great novel/story.

"The circumstances that lead up to Washington's defeat were so unfathomable, that the truth was indeed stranger than fiction. That "completed" pass and subsequent fumble, recovered for a first down; that incredibly ill-timed cramp in the leg of Greg Carothers; that horrific 12th man penalty that gave Michigan one final, desperate chance to win the ball game.

The sights and sounds of Michigan players swarming about the field in unbridled ecstasy, while the stunned Huskies numbly made their way to the locker rooms- this will obviously haunt the Dawgs for some time to come. In a sense, fate has dealt Washington a very tough blow. However, there are still eleven more games to play.

How will Washington respond? …The premise might end up as:
Devastating loss leads to a loss of confidence and unraveling of season. Or perhaps, it will be:
Devastating loss leads to strengthening of resolve and season-ending glory.

We shall see.

Washington 34, San Jose State 10

Following this listless performance, I wrote an open letter to the players, fans and coaches. The following is an excerpt from my address to the players:

"It stood to reason that you would take the field and be gung-ho, charging into the home opener against San Jose State. Instead, you looked as disinterested as a middle-aged man who had been dragged to the antique store by his wife. I realize that it was San Jose State. I realize that you had come off of a gut-wrenching, nightmare of a loss. I realize that a tremendous amount of effort went into preparing for that game against the Wolverines, and to leave 100% of your soul out on the field and yet come away with a loss is hard to take.…For the first half, you displayed a lunchbox mentality that reeked of an NFL Sunday. You only played inspired when you felt your backs were against the wall. This is a game that is supposed to be fun. It is a game of emotion. Win or lose, I would love to see you having a bit more enjoyment out there. I would love to see you being more demonstrative. I would love to see you getting after it for the pure love of competition and a zest for play."

Washington 38, Wyoming 7

This excerpt came following a very lackluster performance that was marred with turnovers, sloppy play and inefficiency:

"The voluminous mountain of yardage gained by the offense was impressive, to be sure. But it isn't enough. Every one of our five fumbles came as we were driving the ball. We moved the pigskin so impressively, but time and again we coughed it up as we approached pay dirt. This is symptomatic of a team that is immensely talented and knows how to execute, but doesn't fully feel and comprehend the killer instinct of not being denied. In a sense, the Washington offense right now is like Jennifer Lopez as an impressionable teenager. She is dressed in frumpy old sweats and without her hair combed. She probably knows that she isn't ugly. She sees some indications that she could be very pretty. But she doesn't yet truly grasp at how spectacular she can be."

Washington 41, Idaho 27

At this point, even though Washington was 3-1, there were many scary indicators that this season of great promise may deflate in a hurry if corrections weren't soon made.

"If Pickett is ever having an off day, or if blustery winds are whipping up off of Lake Washington, or if top-notch defensive backs can clamp down on Washington receivers, it could force the Huskies to resort to the running game. In the event that Washington can't run the ball at all against a straight four-man front, then we have some trouble on our hands. I am also not saying here that I don't embrace our high-flying offensive attack. It is incredibly fun to watch, and effective so far. But the fact remains that the nation's most prolific aerial offenses typically come from southern climes. They usually herald from areas where the weather is usually ideal for throwing the football around, unimpeded by Mother Nature. Look at Oklahoma and Nebraska, who have always been able to run the ball due to the necessity caused by harsh conditions. Look at the Florida teams, always entertaining the nation with their aerial circus attacks. Look at Michigan and Ohio State, brandishing reputations as smash-mouth football powerhouses. And look at Washington, where we have had a reputation for decent, low-risk running games and stout defenses. Our weather and environment gave shape to our gridiron identity all those decades and up until recently. I just hope that we can rely on throwing 60 times a game when the weather is difficult, and still be able to win the tough, key games."

California 34, Washington 27

The Golden Bears came into Husky Stadium and physically abused the Dawgs. Concern suddenly abounds among Husky fans far and wide. Trying to have fun while expressing my deep concern, I wrote something called the "Gridiron Gettysburg Address":

"Four score and seven years ago, our forefather Dobie brought forth on this continent, a proud football program, conceived in toughness, and dedicated to the proposition that you must be able to play stout defense and run the football in order to win. Now we are engaged in a great civil war; testing whether that football team, or any football team so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. But a great crisis has ensued across the land, with the realization that we tread lightly when run-blocking. That schematic breakdowns rear their ugly heads when we have the opponent third and long. That there exists a propensity for cringe-inducing turnovers, which have been our great undoing this season.…There is also that old parable of the 15th-century sea Captain that brought his ship ashore to an island. They were going to do battle with the inhabitants and take it over for their mother country. When everyone was off the boat, the soldiers looked on in horror as the Captain ordered the boat to be burnt and sunk into the sea. When in gasping befuddlement they asked the Captain why he did this, he told them "I did it so you will know that retreating and going back home is no longer an option. We absolutely must win with everything that we have, together, or we will die. The choice is yours."

Washington 32, Arizona 28

The Huskies somehow manage to pull out a miracle 4th-quarter comeback against an under whelming Wildcat team. UA's Jason Johnson had a career day against the Dawgs' porous defense.

"When UW plays against a Major Applewhite, Jonathan Smith, Kyle Boller or Jason Johnson, opposing school passing records seem to be dropping like dead flies. No quarterback should ever come into Husky Stadium and throw for 443 yards! When the other team has a third and four, our DBs should be right in their receivers' faces, not giving up a 10-yard cushion. This might be easy for me to sit here and say when I am not out on the field. However, if we're giving up ungodly chunks of yardage already, often in critical situations, isn't it clear that what is being attempted and tweaked at constantly is not working?…But now we are still utilizing the same philosophy, yet we are surrendering so much yardage. Against teams with quality Quarterbacks, each game is becoming a version of the Alamo. We play our defensive backs way back, as if we are afraid that a touchdown would otherwise be imminent. We tackle with an awkward tentativeness that was again costly against Arizona. When we rush only three or four lineman, there is no pressure at all, yet zone coverages constantly and inevitably break down, what with the abundance of time provided to look for a receiver."

USC 41, Washington 21
Arizona State 27, Washington 16

These were the two most putrid games Washington played all year. Arizona State announcers commented during the game how the Huskies seemed to give up toward the end of the third quarter.

"Very late Saturday night, I went to the local grocery store here in Edmonds, and spotted a buddy of mine who is a checker there. We started talking about the ASU game, and were very animated in our frustration and analysis of the loss. This is not Husky football, we said. He asked me what I was going to write about. As we chatted amongst ourselves, a rotund, purple-clad gentleman went lumbering past. He overheard us and from it deciphered who I was. "Oh, are you that Johnson guy from Dawgman.com?" I indicated that I was, and he cut right to the chase. "For your next article, I want you to give those coaches hell!" he bellowed. "They're running our program right into the ground!"

I looked at him, shrugged, and indicated that there are many factors involved with the team's failures this season. I said that in my opinion, the players, coaches and circumstances have all contributed to the struggles.

"That's a bunch of B.S., it's Neuheisel!" he scoffed, before storming off.

I thought back in August, as I think now, that Rick Neuheisel is a capable coach. I can say with total sincerely that I am happy he is here. I say this even after the stigma he has brought to Washington after running afoul with the NCAA regarding recruiting practices both here and at Colorado. I say this even after this embarrassing string of recent poor performances. Rick Neuheisel has many good qualities and he is very intelligent and wants to win badly. It must sting greatly to be on record as stating that he wants UW to be the "Florida State of the West", when currently his team more closely resembles Rutgers.

However, I truly think that Neuheisel can continue to learn from this, make the necessary changes, and get this team back to where it needs to be. Remember that I wrote this, even if it won't happen this year."

In these darkest days of the season, I wondered continuously if I was being too critical in my columns, or not critical enough. Sometimes I felt such compassion for the players and what they were going through, other times, I felt FURIOUS at our lack of intensity and the paltry way we were playing.

The Monday following the Arizona State debacle, I received an email that let me know I was on the right track. It was the most meaningful email I have ever received in my two years at Dawgman.com. The author will not be revealed:


Thought your article today was great, Have we been here before? Yes. We could only hope that all the players and coaches would read. There are still five great games, which could mean five wins left. I know my son will play with all the intensity he can muster, as will other players. Somehow a fire has to be lit under the entire team and the coaches. I know they want to WIN, but they need to be able to see it in each other right down to the last seconds of the game. Anyway, thanks for your article. I was a little hesitant to even look on site today. But your article gave me some inspiration.

UCLA 34, Washington 24

The Huskies fall to 4-5 and the wheels seem to be coming off the Washington Wagon. My inbox is flooded with irate letters from incensed fans, demanding explanations. I confide with some of them that I wonder if we will win another game this year. I tried to keep it light but still depict the situation for what it is, as best I can. I took from an old fable, St George and the Dragon, and made a Husky version out of it. The story of St. George is one of a hero who, on behalf of society, goes to war against a great evil, represented by a dragon. I renamed it "St. Rick and the Dragon". The story started with a depiction of torch-bearing angry fans storming the fortified walls of the athletic department, before setting their sights upon Husky Stadium.

"…This commotion continued along, until someone shouted, "there is a dragon out on Montlake Blvd.!" We all raced toward the closed end of the stadium and up into the grandstands for a vantage point outside. Traffic had been cordoned off. The sky overhead was thick with ominous and rolling black clouds. A gigantic green dragon (as tall as the former Husky Tron) was lumbering down the middle of the street, fire blasting out of his mouth. In his clutches was a screaming Washington Husky cheerleader. I grabbed binoculars from a nearby fan and peered closely in at the monster. With close inspection, I saw that each of his teeth were the size of a Buick! The dragon reached over and grabbed an abandoned Metro bus, and devoured it fully in seconds. This was followed with a thunderous belch that reeked of putrid diesel. Upon even closer inspection, I saw that each of the dragon's scales had inscribed upon it a "thou shalt", in the form of problems plaguing the Husky football program. The words included "first losing season since 1976", as well as "intensity", "clock management", "execution", "dropped passes", "missed tackles", "pass defense", "play calling", "defensive aggressiveness", "Husky tradition", "turnovers", "opportunistic defense", and "pride", among many others. Thousands of fans rushed forth and surrounded the scene, but maintained a safe distance, of course. Many of the fans were wearing any of three colors; be it crimson, green or orange, and all of these fans appeared to be enjoying the spectacle. From high above and behind a turret, far atop the Athletic Department, Barbara Hedges looked on with grave concern. Emerging from Hec Ed Pavilion was a figure upon a horse. It was Rick Neuheisel. He was decked out in purple and gold armor and a shiny gold football helmet featuring a purple "W". In his grasp was a giant, shining spear. Upon his face was a look of morbid fear, and yet staunch determination. The clip-clop of his horse's hooves made contact with the pavement, and the giant, green dragon became aware of his presence and turned to confront him. From deep within the monster's diaphragm, a giant bellowing roar was let forth, followed by a cannon blast of searing fire, emitted from his mouth. Neuheisel leaned forward upon his steed, dug his spurs into the horse's side and began his charge. The giant green beast before him reared up and was ready for the attack. St. Rick extended his pointed spear and closed in…"

Washington 41, Oregon State 29

The Huskies begin to show some life…

"When the Husky defense was playing, it was as if the players could smell some blood. Beaver QB Derek Anderson was shaky in confidence, and making poor throws and decisions. The Husky players could feel it. The fans could smell blood too. There was a slight swagger to Washington's walk. The defense was on the field, and it felt good to watch them. It felt good to help stoke their feeding frenzy with our yelling and stomping. It felt good to explode out of our seats and exalt, when we snared each of those five interceptions. That special connection between the fans and the players seemed to be suffused together again. It was like a special recognition of sorts.…For the first time all year, it felt like Husky Stadium. I could have sworn that for a brief moment, I saw the ghosts of Jim Owens and Don James patrolling the sidelines (even though, for the record, they're not dead)."

Washington 42, Oregon 14

The Dawgs avenge recent frustrating losses to the Ducks, in a manner that was straight out of the wildest fantasies of Husky fans. We fans seated in the visiting section of Autzen stadium, had a joyous time that we will never forget:

"As the momentum totally shifted in UW's favor, and the rout began to mount amid the soggy downpour, the spirits of the Huskies' rooting section commenced lift-off and rocketed into the stratosphere. It was like a tremendous New Year's Eve party. It felt like all the frustrations of a flat season were expunged and washed away with the Eugene rain. This was the most enjoyable victory since the Rose Bowl triumph against Purdue. It felt fantastic to be a Husky on Saturday. As the final gun went off, to see the players stampede over to the UW fans in the end zone, and revel in this wild glow of victory, was such a gratifying thing to witness."

Washington 29, Washington State 26 (3 OT)

In an epic clash that will be talked about for decades, the Huskies overcome a 20-10 deficit late in the game to capture the Apple Cup. Reggie Williams makes one of the most spectacular leaping catches (amid double coverage) that I have ever seen… anywhere.

In defining this season in terms of a story, then that potential premise from my post-Michigan article certainly came to fruition. Devastating loss leads to strengthening of resolve and season-ending glory. It took awhile to occur, but like Indiana Jones, the Huskies managed to pull it off-- against great odds.

This Washington team will long be remembered, for having extracted themselves from the quagmire of a losing season. The players rediscovered within themselves a love of football, and the enjoyment of performing well. To revel in simply playing this great game, and enjoying the fruits of one's labor, is what competition is all about.
Derek Johnson can be reached at djohnson@Dawgman.com

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