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.