Put all of your story lines and hype surrounding the 99th Apple Cup aside: two injury-plagued programs hoping end erratic seasons on a high note; the Washington quarterback saga; Washington State seeking an unprecedented third-straight victory over the Huskies and bowl security; the Dawgs' crushing loss to Stanford a week previous... Washington 's 35-32 victory Saturday was a tightly-played, seat-of-your-pants win that delighted fans with exciting, immediate football.
The big plays that had eluded the Huskies since their last win at Arizona in week five came in droves for the beleaguered Dawgs, and left many in the locker room sounding as positive about the program's future as they had been devastated just seven days ago.
"The program's on an upswing, it really is," declared senior linebacker Scott White, who entered the game seventh in the Pac-10 in tackles and tied for second in interceptions and, along with junior defensive end Greyson Gunheim (in the conference top-10 for sacks, tackles for loss, and fumbles forced), and senior cornerback Dashon Goldson (who left with an injury in the first half), anchored an inconsistent defense that held strong when it mattered Saturday, sacking Cougar quarterback Alex Brink five times and forcing one turnover.
Having weathered a preseason media blitz surrounding his comments that he would consider quitting the team if not named a starter, White seemed particularly pleased with the outcome. "The magnitude of this game got everyone's minds off of Stanford," he said, "every time they started to get something going, we were right there to counter. It feels good to go out a winner."
A 64-yard pass from Carl Bonnell to Cody Ellis - a tipped, shoestring catch-and-run that had many in the press box ready to call it the team's play of the year - started the scoring for the Huskies in the second quarter, answering a six-minute Cougar scoring drive.
"I got inside of [my man], the ball was thrown a little bit behind me, and I had to try to get my hands on it," Ellis recalled of the play. "I didn't catch it at first, but it got knocked up and I grabbed it with one hand and turned around, and all I saw was green."
And this time, the plays kept coming.
Marlon Wood's 87-yard kickoff return set up a Louis Rankin score to tie the game at 14 before halftime. Marcel Reece caught a pass from Bonnell for a 69-yard touchdown on the third play of the third quarter. Chris Stevens blocked a punt at the Washington State 22 yard-line and returned it for a touchdown—the first Washington blocked-punt-for-touchdown since the 1991 Rose Bowl. Rankin broke a 77-yard run for a touchdown (71% of the Huskies' net run-game).
And Caesar Rayford sacked Brink, whose gritty performance (32-of-54, 328 yards passing) was not enough, on fourth down with 1:05 remaining to seal the victory.
In fact, Washington only logged one official trip into the red-zone, converting on Rankin's 8-yard run following Wood's mammoth return.
"We had a stretch [this season] where our guys continued to work...but we couldn't get it done, couldn't find that ounce or inch or fraction of confidence" that made the difference today, coach Tyrone Willingham said after the game. "We knew it would come right down to the fourth quarter, and to be a champion at some point you have to get it done."
Though Willingham would not nominate one as the biggest—"they all were [big]," he stated matter-of-factly, "if you any take one of them out [it's a different game]"—Bonnell's ability to stay mostly-upright and healthy in a week spent recovering from a shoulder sprain, thigh bruise, and concussion certainly proved key.
And though it may have deprived sentimentalists of the chance to see action from fifth-year walk-on Felix Sweetman, Willingham made it clear that his goal was to prevail. "I wish it had unfolded so all [the seniors] could have played," he said, "but I felt that winning was more important today."
The arrival of Reece is also good news for Husky fans. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior receiver had six catches for 62 yards coming into the game, with none in the past six tumultuous weeks. His three Apple Cup catches netted 107 yards, including the 69-yard touchdown and another acrobatic 26-yard effort.
"I caught the ball, turned it up-field, and just ran," he said of the touchdown catch, "all I saw was my home crowd [in the east end zone], a swarm of purple and gold, and I just ran to where I was welcome."
When asked whether the play, a short-yardage route, was designed to go that far, a clearly-delighted Reece replied: "In my eyes every play is designed to go that far. It was a 4-yard route, I caught it, turned it up, and was blessed that it went that far."
Addressing his season and it's redemption, he shared: "It's been a long time coming, I've been through a lot of adversity, but I had confidence in my coaches that they were going to put me in a position to make plays."
Looking elated and relieved, Bonnell, who initially committed to Washington State , admitted that it had been an emotional week.
"This is why you play football," he said, "to experience times like this."