For me, it didn't happen until November 21. That was the day that I first felt it.
You know what I'm talking about. That familiar but infrequent sense of sports conviction that things have really turned a corner and the best is now ready to unfold in front of us. Not in a "baseball spring training" sort of way, where the optimism is tied more to the possibility of unknown factors coming together in a random but magical order to produce an unexpected outcome.
I'm talking about something more corporeal. Sports fans get it. It's that moment where the glimpses of what the product is supposed to be feels less like chance and more like intent.
On November 21st, the Huskies beat the Oregon State Beavers in a football game held at Reser Stadium in Corvallis. The 52-7 score hardly captures the savagery of the beatdown handed to the home team. For me, it was in this game that uncertainty gave way to confidence and that blind faith surrendered to resounding certainty. It was the proverbial "turning on of the lights" for what this program can soon evolve into.
My moment, I admit, probably came later than many of yours. Though I am an unabashed optimist and one of those kinds of sports fans to whom winning isn't everything, I certainly was struggling to see how the plan was to come together. The icebergs of the Husky football program seemed to all be floating in their own space with no clear collision course in motion. At least until that point.
Certainly, my position can be understood. Here we were deep into Chris Petersen's second full season. We had still not managed to put up much of a résumé against winning programs, and our one win over a ranked opponent during his tenure seemed to have some luck involved. We weren't getting many clues that the so-called "rebuild" was taking hold.
Sure, the young Husky defense was killing it. But as we watched UW fall to Oregon...and Utah...and Arizona State, it didn't seem to matter much. In fact, it was eerily similar to the previous season when UW put four starting defenders into the first round of the NFL draft while still barely cracking the .500 mark during the season.
For whatever reason, the team just wasn't getting it. The young QB was mistake-prone and couldn't seem to get over his deep ball issues. The rushing game was boom or bust, resembling very much more the style of rush from 2014 than that of 2013 with Bishop Sankey at the helm. The receivers? Oy. Add to that random issues with playcalling and so few "plays made" at opportune times. It was all frustrating.
Then, as I said, November 21st came along. The Oregon State game wasn't the first time that UW "exploded" on an opponent. Just a few weeks before, UW handed the Arizona Wildcats a blowout defeat in Seattle. But this one felt different. Maybe it was because it was the second time. Maybe it was because it was on the road. Maybe it was because I wanted it to be so.
Granted, Oregon State wasn't a good team. But it wasn't so much the accomplishment against a quality foe that jumped out to me about this game. It was the way it got done:
- Special Teams? How about Dante Pettis with an 89-yard punt return for a TD?
- Rushing Attack? How about Myles Gaskin with 127 yards on 23 carries?
- Defensive Stoutness? How about holding a PAC offense to under 250 total yards and generating two turnovers?
- Passing Game? How about freshman Jake Browning throwing four TD passes, two of which go to hope-for-the-future big man Brayden Lenius?
- Record Setting? How about 28 first-quarter points tying an all-time mark?
It was the kind of razzle-dazzle involving just about every aspect of the team that Husky fans just haven't seen for the better part of two decades.
The linchpin for me, however, was none of that. The moment that turned my head - and my attitude about the future of this program - happened in an otherwise unremarkable situation. Ironically, it involved a player to whom the future was the then and now.
It was late in the first quarter. The Huskies were already up 21-0 but the game, as Husky fans know all too well, was hardly over. The Beavers had the ball and were starting out deep on their side of the field. Backup RB Paul Lucas was in the game and, on his first carry of the drive, shot past a whiffing Keishawn Bierria and got loose on the right sideline. He had blown past the entire second layer of the Husky defense and was on his way to stemming the Oregon State hemorrhage with a huge TD run.
That was until Travis Feeney happened.
The senior linebacker for Washington made a hustle play for the ages to not only save a TD but to also make a statement about what this Husky team was going to be about. Starting out from the other side of the play, Feeney made up a 10+ yard head start for Lucas to chase him down at the UW 8-yard line. The play still went for 76 yards, but not for a touchdown. As luck would have it, the Beavers failed to score at all. UW's defense held them off of the scoreboard altogether on that drive.
Think about that play from the Travis Feeney perspective. It wasn't his assignment. That play was Bierria's to make. If Lucas had gotten into the end zone, the Huskies would still have a sizable lead and Feeney would have no accountability for the breakdown. One could also surmise that the effort required to make that play so close to your own goal line would have minimal benefit given that a field goal is almost certain and a TD on a subsequent play could be highly likely.
So, what was the point? Feeney didn't have to put forth the kind of superhuman effort he did with so little benefit likely to be derived.
Except he did. And that is when it happened for me.
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Our (Apple) Cup Runneth Over
It wasn't just a win, nor was it simply bowl eligibility. It was another small piece of payback for what happened in the snow almost 25 years ago.
More 15 in '15 Recaps
That Feeney made a selfless play isn't, by itself, a unique occurrence. Lots of players do similar things. However, think about the circumstances: Big lead. Road game. Somebody else's mistake. First quarter. Struggling opponent. All of these factors combined would have persuaded most players to back off a gear.
Heck, they probably would have dissuaded most Husky players in that game from shifting gears upward.
But here was our senior linebacker and unquestioned leader of the defense "showing," not "talking." In that moment, Feeney demonstrated the essence of the attitude change that Chris Petersen and his staff have been telling us about since he arrived. Winning doesn't just happen all of a sudden. It begins when attitude and effort catch up to the God-given talents of the players on the field. It accelerates when leaders emerge and players fully ingrain the notion of playing for one another as a core principle.
That's what I saw when Feeney shot out of a cannon and came out of nowhere to deny Paul Lucas. And that is when I felt the sensation of the light from the end of tunnel beginning to greet my eyes. It was time for cautious optimism to give way to enthusiastic optimism. It was time to let hope shake hands with expectation and for me to start thinking about how special this thing really might be.
There is, of course, a long way left to go. But the Huskies will go into the 2016 season not just a darkhorse team in the minds of the fans, but also in the minds of many outside pundits who are seeing the same signs of life that they've observed in other teams on the brinks of fortune changes. From Bill Connelly to Bruce Feldman...from Ivan Maisel to Kevin Gemmell...from Stewart Mandel to Ted Baker...and many others. Hope - legitimate and true - is the theme surrounding this UW program right now. Given how little of it we've held over the years, it's no wonder that hope is our top storyline of the 2015 season.
With that, we conclude our little 15 of '15 project. John, Ryan, and I hope that you enjoyed this somewhat unique approach to reliving and recapping the key happenings of the 2015 season. We now turn our attention in earnest to the 2016 season and the spring camp that is now just days away. To commemorate this transition, I invite you to leave your own comments on the 2015 season and your reflections on the moments that were most memorable for you. The time will shortly come for us to stash those things away and to look ahead, so enjoy them while you can.