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.