Road to 1991 Perfection: Kelly Respects National Champ Team, Doesn't Fear It

The linebacker and his 1984 Huskies had one little slip-up or people wouldn't have been able to tell them apart from the '91 UW team.
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Seven seasons separated Joe Kelly's Huskies and the University of Washington's 1991 national championship team.

Not much else did.

OK, there was that solitary loss by the 1984 guys.

A 16-7 stumble at USC.

Other than that, little difference.

Both teams had suffocating defenses.

Huge victories over Michigan.

One beat Oklahoma, the other Nebraska.

One team had Holmes, the other Emtman.

One had Jacque, the other Beno.

One had Reggie, the other Jones.

One went 12-0, the other guys 11-1.

Both finished No. 2 in the Associated Press poll.

The '91 guys, of course, topped everyone in the CNN/Coaches ranking.

Just that little blemish separated them. 

"Bottom line, we let one victory get away from us," 'said Joe Kelly, an '84 player and considered the greatest inside linebacker in UW history. "That makes them the greatest team. Do I think we could beat them? Absolutely."

This is another in a series of vignettes about the UW's 1991 national title run, supplementing the conversation for the recently completed pandemic-influenced season. We're now in the aftermath of the Huskies' 12-0 season in this throwback replay.

Kelly acknowledges the '91 Huskies might have won on style points, too, with Don James opening up the playbook some from his standard, disciplined coaching approach in '84. The national champions sent eight players on the blitz at times and flooded zones with four or even five receivers at times. That was different.

Yet toughness was a quality both Husky teams possessed, which would have made a head-to-head matchup between them very interesting.

"One thing I won't take away from the '91 team: they're the greatest team because they dominated, they dominated every day," Kelly said. "That being said, we line up mano a mano, they're not going to put the numbers up on our defense. All of our linebackers were 4.5 [second] and under guys. All of our DBs could run. We had two safeties who would knock your lights out in Jimmy [Rodgers} and Tim Peoples. They had [Steve} Emtman, we had [Ron] Holmes."

While the debate could go on forever about the comparative firepower between the UW's two highest-ranking teams in the final polls, Kelly scoffs at the notion that BYU rather his Huskies was the national champion in 1984. 

Those Cougars from the Western Athletic Conference finished their unbeaten run in the Holiday Bowl. They beat Michigan on a neutral field whereas the UW did it in Ann Arbor. Kelly wasn't impressed with them at all.

"We would have beat BYU by 30 points," he said.

The '84  Huskies were never fearful around vaunted Oklahoma either. Kelly remembers a preliminary Orange Bowl boat ride that involved both teams. It was a leisurely cruise that nearly got out of hand. Tempers flared and there were brief scuffles. 

Showboat Sooners linebacker Brian Bosworth, so outlandish in his sheer blond mohawk and steroid-fueled physique, climbed up on a table and began dancing. The late Husky defensive lineman Reggie Rogers, so much bigger and tougher, knocked the Sooner player off of it. 

Everyone got a little excited out in the bay. The '84 UW guys were still fired up on game day. Their 28-17 New Year's Day victory was proof of that. 

Kelly and his guys would have welcomed a chance to go up against Emtman and Company, just to compare what everyone had. 

"I would go in a dark alley with that '84 team anytime, anywhere, any place," Kelly said.

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