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Flying High Again
Sally Jenkins
September 28, 1992
With a 29-14 victory over Nebraska, defending national co-champion Washington proved it will be in the chase for another crown
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September 28, 1992

Flying High Again

With a 29-14 victory over Nebraska, defending national co-champion Washington proved it will be in the chase for another crown

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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."

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