STEVE: Washington really appeared to be on an uptick when the 2000s dawned. The Huskies had a new (hired 1999) head coach in telegenic Rick Neuheisel, a great senior quarterback in Marcus Tuiasosopo and the makings of a team that seemed set to contend for a Rose Bowl berth — especially after Sept. 9, when the Huskies scored a 34-29 win over No. 4-ranked Miami at Husky Stadium.
It marked UW’s first win over a top-10 team in Husky Stadium since the memorable 31-0 swarming of quarterback Todd Marinovich and USC in 1990. Things I remember most about that game: the Huskies won despite three Tuiasosopo turnovers (two interceptions), Rich Alexis’s 50-yard TD run, and thinking that Miami’s Santana Moss might have a pretty good NFL career.
ART: Often forgotten in the subsequent maelstrom surrounding Neuheisel’s departure is that, in his second season, UW finished 11-1 and ranked fourth in the country after a 34-24 win over Purdue in the Rose Bowl. Lots of people ascribe Neuheisel’s success to riding the players Lambright recruited, but it proved to be the highest point of the decade — as long as you don’t count the misdeeds by several prominent players that mostly came to light after the season.
STEVE: One of the lowest points of the decade occurred during that 2000 Rose Bowl season. In a game at Stanford on Oct. 28, UW defensive back Curtis Williams suffered a spinal chord injury, complicatons from which ultimately killed him. A week after Williams got hurt, the Huskies had a home game against Arizona, and began it with a special tribute to Williams. Washington then played one of the more memorable games of the decade by beating Arizona 35-32. UW surrendered 471 yards to a Wildcat team that had been the worst-ranked offense in the Pac-10. Washington had to outscore Arizona 22-7 in the fourth quarter in order to win, Tuiasosopo notching the winning TD on a keeper.
ART: The graduation of Tuiasosopo, who succeeded nearly as much with his legs as his arm, changed radically the Huskies’ offensive approach. Instead of the option, UW frequently went to the bomb, featuring QB Cody Pickett and WR Reggie Williams.
STEVE: Interesting about the Pickett-Williams era was the extent to which Washington largely abandoned the run in favor of the pass. Pickett threw twice as many passes in his career as Sonny Sixkiller. In addition to the bombs to Williams, he threw hundreds of dump-offs, one time finding Braxton Clemens, a running back, 15 times in a game. Clemens didn’t even gain 100 yards receiving. One of the first big Pickett-Williams games came in the 2001 Apple Cup, when Pickett threw for 371 yards and Williams set an Apple Cup record by catching 11 balls for 203 yards.
ART: After that 26-14 win, the Neuheisel slide began. They lost at Miami 65-7, lost a 47-43 shootout to Texas in the Holiday Bowl and the 2002 opener at Michigan 31-29 after the Huskies committed a crucial penalty -12 men on the field. After three wins over nonconference cupcakes, the Huskies lost four of their first five Pac-10 games, leading Neuheisel to come up with the “Northwest championship” after wins over Oregon State, Oregon and a 31-29, 3 OT thriller at the Apple Cup in Pullman. Still looking for the “NW championship” reference in the Pac-12 record book.
STEVE: The Huskies had one great moment at home in the midst of this — a game in 2002 against Arizona when Reggie Williams had an 80-yard run and catch for the winning TD with 2:03 left. But you’re right: the slide to doom had started. Finally, Neuheisel lied his way out of a job (although he got a $4 million settlement in a subsequent suit against the university) and Keith Gilbertson came aboard. Guy really never had a chance at the UW, especially after losing to Nevada in 2003. Talk about being fed to the wolves: Nevada sacked Pickett eight times for 48 yards in losses. Nevada had not beaten a Pac-10 team in 56 years coming into that game.
ART: Much as was his longtime friend and colleague, Jim Lambright, Gilbertson wasn’t really suited to be a head coach, But like Lambright, he was the senior assistant coach who had an emergency promotion to the top job in the summer when the top guy was ousted via scandal. Thus began a churn of coaches — Steve Sarkisian would be in 2009 the fourth head coach in seven years — that was devastating to recruiting.
STEVE: Looking back on it, you wonder why anyone ever thought Tyrone Willingham, Gilbertson’s successor, was head coaching material, even though he had been the head man at Stanford and Notre Dame before coming to Washington. In 2005, Willingham’s first year, he was only able to improve on Gilbertson’s 1-10 (2004) by one game (209). Best thing that happened under Willingham was the successful recruitment of Jake Locker.
ART: After the betting-pool scandal investigation also turned up errors in the compliance office and misdeeds on the women’s softball team that were far more serious, Washington athletics cleaned house with straight arrow AD Todd Turner, and the straighter-arrow Willingham. The straightest of all was Locker, the boy wonder from Ferndale upon whom the football program hung like a bad suit. His leadership, demeanor and athletic skills were sorely needed for a much-bruised program, even if the level of statistical achievement wasn’t quite up to the hype that attended his career.
STEVE: Locker impressed tremendously as a freshman in 2007, but the severe doldrums in which UW found itself became manifest in Locker’s first home game as a sophomore in 2008, when Locker’s enthusiasm led to one of the most devastating defeats in recent memory. Locker was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for tossing the ball in the air in celebration after scoring with two seconds left at BYU. What looked like a certain win wasn’t. Moved 15 yards back, Ryan Perkins’ try for the point after touchdown — basically a 35-yard field goal — was blocked, allowing No. 15 Brigham Young to escape with a dramatic 28-27 nonconference football victory in front of 64,611 Saturday at Husky Stadium.
ART: That was just one of many indignities that became an 0-12 season, which made UW the only Division I team in history to have a 12-0 season and 0-12 season in its chronicles. Willingham was fired halfway through a 2008 season that includedend a 16-13 double OT loss to the equally inept Cougars.
STEVE: Non-game related moment at Husky Stadium: the announcement that Sarkisian would replace Willingham. UW trotted out cheerleaders and the Husky Marching band to commemorate the moment. It didn’t take Sarkisian long to justify his presence. In his third game on the job (2009, Week 3), the Huskies stunned No. 3-ranked USC (coached by Pete Carroll) 16-13 on a last-second field goal. Then, a couple of weeks later, the Huskies beat Arizona 36-33 when linebacker Mason Foster catches a pass that had deflected off an Arizona receiver’s shoe and takes it 37 yards for a TD with 2:37 to play.
ART: Sarkisian’s first season ended 5-7, but could have been 6-6 and made a bowl if they had beaten Notre Dame in South Bend. The 37-30 OT defeat came about after the Huskies failed to score despite about 10 tries from inside the 5-yard line the 2-yard line. The optimism was doused a bit in 2010 when Nebraska walloped the Huskies 56-21 at home. But the Huskies showed a resilience that has become a trademark by rebounding the next week with a harrowing 32-31 over USC in Los Angeles.
STEVE: UW ended the 2010 season with three straight wins, two on the road, which oddly set them up for a rematch with Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Before going to San Diego, Chris Polk had punished Washington State with 284 yards in Pullman, then followed up with 177 and a TD against the Cornhuskers. Last week, Polk said that the WSU and Nebraska games in 2010 are the two best of his career — and he made that claim right after another great moment at Husky Stadium — his five touchdowns against Arizona, when he became the first back in school history to rush for 100 (144) yards and catch passes for 100 in the same game.
ART: For the last game in the stadium’s original configuration that was created in 1920, the Huskies play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday the Oregon Ducks — the team that from the perspectives of facilities and style of play has set the standard for the last several years in the now-Pac-12. The Ducks are sixth-ranked, rolling and a perfect target for Washington to put an exclamation point on 91 years of sports thrills by starting a new era with a great exit strategy from the old era.