The problem with calling the University of Washington a football school is that its stadium could double as a boathouse. There you are, sitting high above the field, trying to follow the progress of the defending national co-champion Huskies, and small craft keep drifting by just beyond the end zone. It doesn't seem right. Seattle is an easygoing city with a beatnik waterfront where you can browse among the handcrafted jewelry and sweaters from Nepal, and linger over the vistas. It's a place for bohemian cultural adventures, not big games.
But after what occurred last Saturday night, maybe the Huskies truly are a full-fledged football dynasty, and maybe the Nebraska Cornhuskers should enter the America's Cup. A crowd of 73,333 went to Husky Stadium—some, yes, by boat—to see if Washington, ranked No. 2 in the nation, could contend for a second straight national title. The fans found that they could bet their spinnakers on it. The Huskies solidified their place among the elite by defeating the 12th-ranked Cornhuskers 29-14. O.K., the Cornhuskers haven't won a meaningful game against a Top 5 opponent in four years. Still, you have to admit that there are now at least two quality items in Seattle: the seafood and the undefeated Huskies (3-0).
Washington is earnest about another title run. "We don't go around wishing," cornerback Walter Bailey says. "We know." Against Nebraska the Huskies displayed a brushfire offense that ran up 21 points in the second quarter, thanks to the lacerating quickness of tailbacks Beno Bryant and Napoleon Kaufman, who each scored a touchdown on a one-yard run, and the acrobatics of flanker Joe Kralik, whose diving, if dubious, catch of a 29-yard TD pass from quarterback Billy Joe Hobert in the back of the end zone with 47 seconds to go in the quarter led to a 23-7 halftime lead. Complementing that explosive trio was a big-play defense that opened its assault with a safety on the Huskers' third offensive series and closed it out on the last play of the game with an interception, one of Nebraska's three key turnovers.
If it is hard to accept the notion that a stadium with a boat dock is home to a national champion—Washington shared last year's title with Miami—it is even more difficult to imagine that the Huskies could contend for the No. 1 ranking again. After all, Washington coach Don James looks like a barber. Their best receiver, Kralik, wears a rattail hairdo under his helmet and, under his jersey, a T-shirt that depicts Seattle-bred grunge rockers Pearl Jam. The training table is in the boathouse, on the floor above the crews' shells. And then there are the attitudinal temptations: It's easy to lose your focus in Husky Stadium, the cast end of which opens on an expanse of dunes, shoreline and the lapping waters of Lake Washington.
What's more, before knocking off Nebraska, the Huskies were thought to have a defense that was too forgiving. They began their season somewhat distractedly, with unconvincing wins over Arizona State, by a 31-7 score, and Wisconsin, 27-10. The ensuing criticism was so irritating to the players that they almost came to resent last year's team. Here they were 2-0, and everybody wanted to know what was wrong. But against the Cornhuskers, Washington demonstrated that it has adequately replaced the 11 Huskies who were selected in the 1992 NFL draft, including defensive tackle Steve Emtman, the NFL's No. 1 pick. "The first couple of games were iffy," said Emtman's replacement, D'Marco Farr, after the Nebraska game. "We knew this was prove-it week. Everything we did this week we did harder. We did our jumping jacks harder."
There will be other prove-it weeks for Washington, but the Huskies couldn't have a friendlier schedule. They now have a week off to prepare for Pac-10 foe USC, which they face at home. And because of the vagaries of the conference schedule, they don't have to play UCLA this year. In fact, they do not have to play a game in the state of California. And at Washington the home field advantage is considerable: Last Saturday night's crowd was so vocally forbidding that Cornhusker quarterback Mike Grant was often forced to communicate with his team by miming.
If there is cause for some reservations about the Huskies' status, it is that the Cornhuskers are no longer the college football power they once were. Beating them is not much of an accomplishment for a national-title contender. The last time they beat a higher-ranked opponent was in the 1987 Sugar Bowl, when they defeated LSU 30-15. In Tom Osborne's 20 years as head coach, the Cornhuskers are 1-8 against teams ranked either No. 1 or No. 2. There is little else to say about them. "They're very nice people," Farr says.
Not long ago that was the sort of thing said about James and the Huskies. Last season's share of the title was a direct result of two widely reported philosophical overhauls made by James—one affecting recruiting, the other the Husky defense.
After the Huskies lost 28-6 to Alabama in the 1986 Sun Bowl, James knew he had to get better talent. That spring he visited his alma mater, Miami, where he realized that only two of his players were fast enough to start for the Hurricanes. James returned home and held a staff meeting. "Get your butts on the road, and bring me some guys who can run," he said.
That dictate didn't produce immediate results, because James's staff was swallowing exaggerated times attributed to recruits by well-meaning but misguided high school coaches and even by the recruits themselves. A kid who boasted of a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash would turn out to be a 4.8 when he was timed on the Washington practice Held. So James instituted a new policy: Coaches were responsible for personally verifying a recuit's clocking in the 40. Also, James introduced new drills designed to improve speed, and his players were required to run sprints four times a week instead of just twice.
It was in 1989, after the Huskies had lost a heartbreaker to Arizona State 34-32, that James redid his defense. He had six NFL-caliber players on that year's defensive team, and yet the Huskies had given up nearly 500 yards to the Sun Devils. The next day, even though it was mid-season, James junked his reactive zone defense and went to an attacking scheme.
James, who in 1990 was declared the conference's most overrated coach in a poll taken by the Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard, is now being hailed as a man of adaptive brilliance. "I was frustrated," he says. "I was the winningest coach in the Pac-10, and people were giving me up for dead. I didn't want to go down that way. If we lose, I'll go back to being called overrated again."
It's unlikely the Huskies will revert. The long-range results of James's efforts are kicking in. They have gone 28-2 since he installed the new defense. Twenty-seven of the current Huskies run a time of 4.6 seconds or faster in the 40. Speed has become the most important commodity in any modern national championship team, and Washington luxuriates in it. The Huskies' roster is chock-full of young players like Jason Shelley, a true freshman who runs the 40 in 4.5. "I'm fast enough to get away," Shelley says, smiling. He is generally unfazed by his rarefied surroundings—he spent this summer in the Florida rookie league as an Atlanta Brave signee. But he drops his air of sophistication when he talks about his first look at Washington's team speed. Bryant runs the 40 in 4.29, cornerback Bailey, the Huskies' defensive star, in 4.31. Then there is the mind-bending 4.22 speed of Kaufman, who is so fast he can wear black shoes and socks, and still look quick. "Nobody runs with Napoleon," Shelley says, in abject reverence. "All these bodies go flying past you. You don't even have time to be startled. That's the scariest thing in the world, when someone is big and strong, and as fast or faster than you are."
Washington's revival should give hope to Nebraska, which is also trying, after all these years, to diversify and take some risks. If the Cornhuskers have abdicated their national role it is because they have been passed by while stubbornly adhering to their dreary I-back system. But consider this shocking turn of events: Against the Huskies, Grant threw 21 passes, completing 11, and was even deployed in, gasp, the shotgun. Although the Cornhuskers' unfamiliar offense made them prone to turnovers, they had to be commended for their attempt to be more sleek. And they could take encouragement from the fact that their offense was almost balanced against the Huskies—133 yards gained passing, 176 rushing. "We're throwing it," Osborne had said earlier in the week. "Just not always completing it."
It remains to be seen whether Nebraska has the daring to stay with this experiment all season. "I'll believe that when I see it," Husky linebacker Dave Hoffmann said, rolling his eyes. Nebraska will probably always stress the rush as long as it has thresher linemen and iron-hipped backs like Derek Brown—the top rusher in Saturday's game, with 84 yards—and Calvin Jones, who scored the Huskers' only significant points on a 73-yard touchdown run off an option pitch with 7:23 left in the first half. That made the score 9-7, and it was the last time the game was close.
Even when the Cornhuskers did throw successfully, their execution was hardly elegant and certainly not second nature. Assignments were blown, and in their attempts at play-action, the Cornhuskers looked like camels trying to do an agility drill. "I wish when we do have to pass, we could be good at it," Cornhusker linebacker Travis Hill lamented in midweek.
The bald truth last Saturday was that when Nebraska resorted to the pass, something lousy was just as likely to happen as something good. "Whenever I saw the ball in the air, I was happy as a church mouse," Farr said. One aborted pass attempt led to the safety. It came when Nebraska found itself in an emergency, pinned to its own goal line and facing second-and-12. Grant faded to the back of his end zone but had only a moment to search downfield before Husky rover Tommie Smith, unchecked and moving with missile speed, struck him in the small of the back and flung him down.
That was the only score in the brutal defensive stalemate that was the first quarter. Of the 31 plays by both sides, 20 gained two yards or less. "It was two men in a phone booth," Farr said afterward. "And which one was going to come out? It was who hit hardest the most."
On the second play of the second quarter, Grant again backed gingerly into the pocket. This time it was Washington linebacker Andy Mason who struck him from behind and spun him to the ground. Mason leaped up and exulted with his arms over his head, not realizing the ball had popped loose. Inside linebacker James Clifford, a defensive star all day with 13 tackles and a sack, fell on the fumble at the Nebraska 39 to set up Bryant's eventual one-yard scoring dive.
Jones's 73-yarder made the game close—but only briefly. Washington replied immediately with its only sustained drive of the day, an 80-yard march that took 12 plays and consumed 5:54. Kaufman's wild 35-yard run that gave the Huskies a first-and-goal at the Nebraska one was the key. He shot so quickly through the line of scrimmage on an option play that Cornhusker noseguard Terry Connealy and safety Steve Carmer collided in pursuit. Kaufman completed the drive two plays later by smoking into the end zone untouched. "That was huge," Kralik said. "You like to have a long drive and pound it down their throats."
What was best for the Huskies about their 16-7 lead, which came with 1:29 left in the half, was that it made Nebraska want to go to the air again. On first-and-10, Grant scrambled out of the pocket and hurled a wobbler toward split end Trumane Bell along the Husker sideline. Bailey played coy for a moment, lagging behind, then accelerated in front of Bell to make a neat interception at his own 47. James's earlier assessment of his audacious cornerback rang true: "When they throw at Walter Bailey, it's going to be six points, one way or the other."
The interception led to Hobert's scoring pass to Kralik, who appeared to be juggling the ball as he dived out of the end zone. The play was ruled a touchdown, however, and Washington had a comfortable 23-7 lead as it headed into the locker room. "I had a knee down, I think," Kralik later said. "I'm the last person to ask. They gave it to me, so I'll take that baby."
Kralik's score turned out to be more than Washington needed. The Huskies added a pair of Travis Hanson field goals, of 42 and 32 yards in the third and fourth quarters, respectively, to stay comfortably ahead. And with the final gun, Washington officially put last year to rest. "We don't want to be proud of what we did last year," Clifford said. "We want to be proud of what we're about to do."