Three years after the completion of its $280 million face lift, the new Husky Stadium on Friday sounded very much like the place where sellout crowds used to fire up powerhouse teams.
From the moment the Huskies swarm-tackled Stanford Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey on the opening kickoff to the last-play kneel down that preceded the students’ field storming, 72,000 voices created bedlam that revived memories of The Way It Was.
Adding to the mood was the presence of dozens of players from the 1991 team, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the school’s last national championship.
As coach Chris Petersen said after the Huskies accurately impersonated their counterparts from a generation ago: “It’s really cool the ’91 team was here. Some of those guys probably haven’t been back in a long time. Being in that environment, they think: This is exactly what it was like when we left.”
Serving as both an energy source for the Huskies and a disruptive force that rattled their characteristically poised opponents, the crowd was a major reason Washington stomped on Stanford early and never stopped stomping. But the Huskies also were assisted by players who took little pride in the contribution they made to the 44-6 victory.
A week ago Saturday night, Arizona scared the Huskies to the point it steeled them. Nothing was easy in Tucson, where four offensive drives inside the Wildcats 30-yard line ended in scoreless frustration. Whenever Washington appeared in position to seize control, something happened to extend the suspense.
And yet the UW survived, winning the kind of mistake-filled game followed by a sigh of relief and an urge to turn the page.
It’s likely most national poll voters didn’t learn about Washington’s 35-27 overtime victory until Sunday morning, but they took notice, dropping the Huskies to No. 10.
“People said we were overrated after the Arizona game,” defensive tackle Elijah Qualls said Friday night. “But people didn’t understand that Arizona is a hell of a team. Honestly, that was the best competition we’d faced to that point, by far.
“We kind of got over-hyped. I came out jacked because it was our Pac-12 opener. We didn’t adjust as quickly as we do. We didn’t play our game.”
And how was this relevant to the butt-kicking of No 7 Stanford?
“We actually needed that Arizona game to show we know how to handle that pressure — how to handle getting punched in the mouth,” Qualls continued. “It’s good because we still got a win out of that. It’s always good to have to scratch out a win. Last week’s game, coming into this week, made a huge difference.”
Upon returning from the desert bruised but not beaten, the Huskies faced a short week complicated by the stark contrast in the offensive styles of their opponents.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who helped popularize the no-huddle spread and zone-read option, oversees an up-tempo scheme designed around dynamic quarterback Brandon Dawkins. Stanford, which reinvented the T-Formation in 1940, prefers to grind it out with a playbook seemingly scripted before 1940.
David Shaw’s Cardinal teams are built to go toe-to-toe for 60 minutes, relying on strength, smarts and flawless fundamentals. Shaw’s teams are not as adept at converting third-and-long situations, or rallying with the quick strikes required to solve 23-0 deficits at halftime.
“The coaches did an unbelievable job with our game plan,” said Petersen. “We practiced hard, as hard as we could with a short week. It was one of those nights. We were good, we took the next step, now we go back to work.”
Given a 5-0 record distinguished by four blowouts and one whatever-it-takes-to-get-out-alive victory, it is tempting to look at what’s left on the UW schedule and imagine the unimaginable. Seven games remain, and the Huskies profile as the better team in all seven.
Petersen surely knows that. He also knows the Pac-12 is the most balanced of power conferences.
“We’re not there,” he said. “I know how this thing goes. You can’t go to sleep on anybody. You start feeling like you’ve got it figured out, I know what happens next.
“We didn’t get any trophies for winning tonight.”
No trophy, just a sense Petersen’s football program has the look of what the late Don James put together 25 years ago.
If a trophy awaits the Huskies, it can be traced to the night they were punched in the mouth at Arizona, and still walked off the field as winners.