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15 in '15: Chris Petersen Notches Something Resembling a Signature Win

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Nobody thought that it would take Chris Petersen the better part of a season and a half to get a win over a ranked team, much less one with a winning record. But it did.

The idea of a "signature win" is a notion mostly contrived by sports fans. Oddly enough, the concept seems to only apply to football and, more specifically, to college football.

It goes something like this:

  • new coach is hired to put a college program back on track
  • program struggles to adapt and seems to take two steps back for every one forward
  • said program might win a few big games but not really seem to have turned the corner
  • team finally wins a game in a manner that establishes their identity under their coach

Thus the term "signature." It's the kind of victory that had the coach's name all over it.

Taking a look backwards, most Husky coaches have had one of those moments. Jim Lambright had his Whammy in Miami. Rick Neuheisel got his against a ranked Stanford team in Marques Tuiasosopo's famous 300/200 game. Sark had his win over Cal on the "God's Play" call at the end of the game that, even more so than the upset of USC at Husky Stadium, solidified the kind of team he was going to have (including a propensity for waiting until very late in a season to become bowl eligible).

My favorite "signature win," of course, gets credited to the Dawgfather himself. Don James in 1977 was in his third year as Washington's new head football coach. He had guided the Dawgs to a mediocre 11-11 record in his previous two seasons and had opened his third with a sluggish 1-3 record. Included in this jumble of mediocrity was a 2-6 record against ranked opponents (with the two wins feeling a bit fluky).

Elmore Leonard could not have written a more intoxicating mixture of animosity, drama, and enmity than what was found on the hallowed grounds of the Coliseum on this night.

By the time that November 12 came around, the Huskies had started to find a little bit of the groove that would come to define the Don James era. They had won four of their five PAC games to that point, but had failed in their one stiff test (at UCLA). Facing them on that day would be the only ranked team in the conference: USC.

You all know how that one would turn out.  The Huskies would demonstrate a whole new level of physicality and offensive innovation as some guy named Warren Moon would go on to shred the USC defense on the way to a 28-10 Husky victory. The win over that top 10 USC team would propel the Huskies to the Rose Bowl - a stunning win over Michigan - and set up Washington for the better part of two decades as USC's primary foil in their annual race for the PAC title. That rivalry would fuel amazing moments (such as USC's Todd Marinovich famous "All I saw was purple" day) and bitter stratagems played out by each program both on and off the field.

That, my friends, was a signature win.

Chris Petersen opened the 2015 season carrying upon his shoulders the albatross of a disappointing 2014 season without a victory over a ranked FBS team. Forget about a signature win. Petersen was looking for one over a team with a winning record.

In his first two tries, he failed. The return visit to Boise State proved to be a "close but not close enough" affair against an average Bronco team that would go on to lose four games on the season. A few weeks later, Petersen got a crack at a 5-0 Cal team that UW had thrashed the season before. The Huskies would lose that one in disappointing fashion, leaving Petersen once again without anything resembling a meaningful win during his UW tenure.

October 9th was the next great opportunity for Petersen and his Dawgs. The setting was ideal for the Husky head coach to stage one of his patented upsets. The Huskies were taking on the biggest, if not their most bitter, historic rival in USC. They were playing on a weeknight in a venue that was barely half full thanks to the legendary Los Angeles traffic. The Trojans had opened up the season as a playoff contender and had been ranked as high as #3 in the polls prior to their shootout loss to Stanford a few weeks prior. They were fresh off signing the #1 recruiting class in the nation. And, of course, there was the Sark factor.

Elmore Leonard could not have written a more intoxicating mixture of animosity, drama, and enmity than what was found on the hallowed grounds of the Coliseum on this night.

You all know the rest of this story. The Huskies would go on to completely outmuscle and out-endure a Trojan squad that seemed completely unprepared for the wallop that Chris Petersen's young squad powered behind their punches. The Huskies' defense would spend all night collapsing the pocket, shutting down passing lanes, and harassing Trojan quarterback Cody Kessler. It was a coming-out kind of showing for young Husky talents like Azeem Victor, Elijah Qualls, Darren Gardenhire, and Keishawn Bierria on the way to a 17-12 victory.

One could debate whether or not such a win actually qualifies as a "signature" victory. After all, the Trojans had already shown their mortality in their previous loss to Stanford. They were also quite a young team that was still rebuilding from the low point of their NCAA sanctions. Steve Sarkisian had already sparked a bit of controversy with his "Salute to Troy" drunken tirade, though he had yet to have the meltdown that would come to define his brief tenure as the Trojans' head coach (that would come a few days later). From the UW point of view, it wasn't exactly a show of force on the offensive side of the ball, despite the 134-yard breakout from Huskies RB Myles Gaskin and the 34-yard trick play TD pass from Marvin Hall to Joshua Perkins.

But, here is the thing about "signature" wins: they not only happen at an unexpected juncture, but they are accomplished in a manner that comes to define the identity of the team going forward.

Tough?  Yes

Gritty?  Check

Physical?  Absolutely

"All Day Long?"  All the way, baby.

The win over USC was built on the backs of a defensive unit that refused to be intimidated by the emotional reunion with Sark, the bright lights of the big city, or the sparkling rating of the recruits on the opposite sideline.

It was a vintage Petersen effort.  A faceless, nameless collection of Huskies who had previously been defined more by who they had lost than who they were starting stepped onto the field and punched the Trojans in the mouth. A too-small linebacker named Travis Feeney delivered 2.5 sacks. A too-slow duo of corners in Sidney Jones and Darren Gardenhire picked off a pass apiece and doubled the number of interceptions that USC had committed for the season. A no-named unit of young, scrappy defenders held a Heisman-hopeful QB to a pitiful 1 of 13 on third downs and stonewalled a Sark-borne offense to a single rushing touchdown for the entire game.

They made a statement about what kind of team they were going to present to every other opponent left on the schedule and they delivered it with a booming voice.

The performance triggered a string of ace defensive performances that stirred the fanbase and came to define the identity of Chris Petersen's program.  It was a physical domination that Husky fans have only seen glimpses of since the days of the legendary Purple Reign defense and the national championship era.

What's more, it came against the same USC program over which Don James scored his own signature win 28  years prior. The significance of this cannot be overlooked. For UW to be the program that it aspires to be, PAC-12 titles need to be part of the conversation. The North division race - the first big obstacle still out there to overcome - are like the "primaries" to Chris Petersen. The real goal is the "general election" phase of his journey. USC stands tall, even today, as the South program he's most likely to tangle with should he have success in reaching his goals.

Don James initiated a decades-long rivalry with USC for PAC-12 supremacy when he signed his name to the 1977 win over the Trojans. Husky fans can only hope that Chris Petersen's signature 2015 win over the same program augurs the next era of that rivalry.