The fans in Seattle started booing late in the first quarter last Saturday, when Washington Quarterback Steve Pelluer threw an errant pass. Pelluer responded by doing the same thing on the next play, sending the boo birds into full song. "I know how they felt," said Pelluer later. "I was concerned, too."
But fortunately for Pelluer, some of his fellow Huskies took the heat off him when they started messing up as well against hated Washington State in the game that would go a long way toward determining who would play in the Rose Bowl. During a 6:29 stretch of the second quarter, one Washington tailback, Jacque Robinson, fumbled twice and lost both; another, Sterling Hinds, dropped the ball once and the alert Cougars snatched that bobble up, too.
That sort of play had been typical of the Husky offense, which fluctuated all season between unproductive and awful—Washington was next to last in the Pac-10 in total offense going into Saturday's game. No wonder that when Husky Coach Don James was asked before the game if his team was good enough, or even worthy of going to Pasadena, he said, "Sometimes I wonder."
He wondered because of plays like Saturday's crucial one, which came with 15 seconds to go in the second quarter and the ball on the Cougar 15. Pelluer, who by then had silenced his critics up in the stands with several creditable throws—he finished the day completing 7 of 18 passes—was late finding Flanker Paul Skansi, who was running a corner route, and thus Pelluer threw late, a recipe for disaster. Worse, the ball was a duck, a real quacker. It fluttered and floated as it tried to make progress against a swirling wind. But Skansi, who could have nodded off while waiting for the pass, suddenly came back up from deep in the end zone and made a lunging grab at the goal line for a touchdown.
When Pelluer hugged him and yelled, "Great, great catch," Skansi, refusing to perjure himself, said, "I couldn't have caught it if you hadn't thrown it." It was the first touchdown scored by Washington's offense in 10 quarters.
And it couldn't have been more timely. It not only gave the Huskies a 10-7 halftime advantage—just when the Cougars thought they were going in with a 7-3 lead—but it proved to Washington that, even when it was not playing well, it could stay in there against a good team. That was something the Huskies hadn't always done this season. Despite an 8-2 record before Saturday, Washington had not been within hailing distance of UCLA, which waxed the Huskies 31-0, or Arizona, which drilled them 26-7.
And Skansi's touchdown seemed to take the claws out of the Cougars, who, had they won, would have gone to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 51 years. In fact, State football has been in the doldrums for so long that when Assistant Coach Jim Walden became the head man in late 1977—he was the fourth WSU head coach in four years—he went looking for tradition and couldn't find any. The highlights at Washington State were the 1931 Rose Bowl appearance, which the Cougars lost to Alabama 24-0; 1918, when they didn't have a team; and 1943-44, when they didn't have a team for two years.
Even worse, that abysmal history—which also includes a losing streak to Washington that stretches back to 1974—meant that the Cougars had little choice but to endure the condescending treatment of Husky fans who call Washington State "Moo U." "Over the years it has become fashionable to dump on the Cougars," says Walden. "I tell our players that they're as good as anybody else and that they can color between the lines, too." Just before sending the Cougars onto the field, he said to them softly, "Win, lose or draw, you have already made me the proudest football coach in the world."
They had also made him 8-1-1 going in against Washington. Clearly the Coogs, who hadn't beaten the Huskies since 1973, were capable of playing top-level football, even if they weren't as big, fast, talented or anything else as Washington. But that pathetic pass by Pelluer shut the door to the Rose Bowl on the Cougars. Matters were sealed in the third quarter when, in a 2:12 span, Washington lit up the scoreboard for 10 points. Evidently thrilled that they'd remembered how to score a touchdown, even if it was a funny-looking one, the Huskies did it again when Tailback Ron Jackson got loose around the left side on a 23-yard scoring cruise. Twelve seconds later, Washington State Fullback Robert Williams fumbled a pitch and Husky Tackle Fletcher Jenkins jumped on it to set up a 28-yard Chuck Nelson field goal. That made it 20-10 Washington. In the fourth quarter Nelson added his third three-pointer of the day, a 34-yarder, to run the final score to 23-10.
When James was asked after the game if he was surprised that Iowa would be the Big Ten's representative in the Rose Bowl, he said, "I'm not any more surprised that Iowa is in it than I am that we're in it." Nicely put. If there was a bowl lineup that appeared a foregone conclusion at the of this season, it was that Michigan and Southern Cal would play in Pasadena. For the national championship, of course. So much for the experts' predictions.
In truth, it's a miracle that the Huskies are making a second straight visit to the Rose Bowl and their fourth bowl appearance in the last five years. They began the season with only three holdover offensive starters. And, as it turned out, those were the good old days. Tailback was supposed to belong to Vince Coby, who sat out 1980 with a knee injury. But when Coby showed up for practice this fall, it was clear that the layoff had robbed him of his speed, and other runners got a look; five others, in fact, have played tailback for Washington this year. Then there was Clifton Johnson, who was said to be set at fullback after also missing 1980 with an injury to his knee, but that injury finished his football days. Coby thus moved to fullback. Meanwhile, over at tight end things were taking on the appearance of a big-city emergency room on Saturday night, with the lame and the halt, albeit willing, trying to keep James from having to devise a 10-man offense.
And the situation at quarterback was hardly better. Senior Tim Cowan injured a tendon in the thumb of his throwing hand in the second game of the season. That's how Pelluer got the job.
Even off the field, Washington seemed bent on self-destruction. Robinson fell on some steps, tore open two knuckles on his left hand and missed eight games. Bill Daley, the punter, went out for dinner with his parents at a Seattle-area restaurant after the Oregon game in September. His father went into the rest room and was attacked by two men. Young Daley rushed into the fray and seriously sprained his right knee. He hasn't played since.
All this naturally put the burden on the Washington defense, and it came through by merely being brilliant—leading the conference by giving up only 280.7 yards per game. Though five of the starters have missed at least one game, somehow the unit has held together. Against Stanford, in a 3:09 stretch, the Huskies scored four touchdowns set up by a blocked kick, a recovered fumble, an interception and a punt return for a score. Says defensive coordinator Jim Lambright, "That's when our defensive guys said, 'Hey, we can really help win a game.' "
So could the special teams. In all, they have blocked five kicks, scored twice on punt returns and recovered a fumble on a kickoff for a touchdown.
The Huskies' defensive stalwarts throughout the season have been Jenkins, a happy-go-lucky music major who nonetheless meets ballcarriers quickly and in a foul mood, and Linebacker Mark Jerue, who is philosophical about the team's offensive shortcomings. "The offensive guys stuck with the defense last year when we were young," he says. "So now we'll stick with them." Jenkins and Jerue, the defensive co-captains, each were credited with eight tackles, but the star last Saturday was Linebacker Ken Driscoll, who had a fumble recovery, a pass interception and 15 tackles, 11 of them unassisted. "I like the satisfaction that I've kicked somebody's butt one on one," says Driscoll. "It's not painful—for me."
Come late November, teams often have a lot of injuries and are reduced to bragging, be it justified or not, about their defense taking up the slack. And the players say their success has come because they've never been on a closer team. So if all this stuff is malarkey, why then are the Huskies 9-2?
The answer is Nelson, the field-goal kicker. "I worry about everything—except Chuck Nelson," says James.
Nelson's three field goals Saturday were buried in an avalanche of praise for the Washington offense, which produced a modest 280 yards rushing and an anemic 58 passing.
Having Nelson, Pelluer says, is "a great weapon." He has hit 16 of 20 field-goal attempts in '81, winning the Cal game (27-26) with a 21-yarder with 11 seconds to go and sewing up the USC game, which Washington won 13-3, with a 46-yarder in the kind of weather that gives typhoons a good name. Against Texas Tech, in a Texas-size wind, he kicked four field goals, including a 51-yarder into the teeth of the gale, as the Huskies struggled to a 14-7 victory.
Nowadays Nelson seems to be more reliable than a savings bond. But that hasn't always been so. Take last year, when he first won his job. Washington had not missed a PAT in three years and had a string of 111 going for it. But Nelson promptly blew his first point-after attempt and then went on to cast further doubt on his accuracy by missing two 24-yard field-goal attempts. Washington fans reacted to that about the same way they did to some of Pelluer's passing on Saturday. "I could see their point," says Nelson. "I think they felt I should have been a little more productive." The brainy Nelson, who has a 3.5 average in business administration, boots about 165 balls a week in practice. "But I kick 10 times that many in my mind," he says. "I see it on the tee, I hit it clean, it goes high and straight and end over end. I never miss in my mind."
Nelson has become so good that he intimidates Husky opponents. Washington State knew that anytime the ball got around its 30, Nelson might trot onto the field and do the Cougars in.
Washington State's chances were also hurt by several injuries suffered in the game after a generally injury-free year. Most notable among the victims was Clete Casper, the Cougars' starting quarterback, who pulled a hamstring in his left leg after making a pitchout in the second quarter. There were faint hopes he might come back, but they vanished when his leg gave way as he walked into the locker room at halftime. Another serious loss was Running Back Tim Harris, who reinjured a tender right knee. Before leaving the game in the third quarter, he had gotten 64 yards to become the most prolific rusher in Washington State history, with 2,130.
The coffin nails were hammered in for the Coogs when it was announced with 10:30 left in the game that USC had beaten UCLA 22-21, assuring roses for the Huskies if they mushed on to victory. The crowd went bonkers, and the scoreboard urged people to get out their sun-tan lotion. Said Pelluer, who didn't hear the announcement, "I thought maybe we'd done something great that I hadn't noticed."
As Walden dressed for the five-hour bus ride back across the state to Pullman, he discovered that the Cougars hadn't gone entirely unnoticed. Confirmation came through that they had been invited to the Holiday Bowl, where they will face BYU (see page 93) on Dec. 18. That will be the Cougars' first bowl appearance of any kind in 51 years, but Walden doesn't intend to sit back and admire this 8-2-1 season as a delightful aberration in Cougar football.
He said, "I don't want to be a one-song, sold-a-million-records, whatever-happened-to Johnnie Ray." He won't be, just as soon as he figures out how to beat the Huskies.