Note: Without live active sports to cover, I’m digging back into history for a series on the 1991 Washington Husky football team. I will be covering the season week-by-week, watching game tape where it’s available, and attempting to get in the mind of a Husky fan watching this undefeated National Champion in real time. I was a six-year old in North Dakota when the season happened, so most of this project will by my first time experiencing the games beyond folklore from those who have told me about them.
Last season, the Dawgs won the Pac-10 for the first time since 1981 and beat Iowa in the Rose Bowl. Despite entering the season at #20, they went 10-2 on their way to a #5 ranking in the final AP Poll. Both losses came by less than a single touchdown- the Huskies fell on the road to #20 Colorado in week four and lost their only conference game to UCLA at home in week 10. A late field goal by UCLA propelled the Bruins to an upset victory and ended UW’s national title hopes. Meanwhile, Colorado finished 11-1-1 and claimed a share of the national title.
The high point of the season was the 31-0 trouncing of favored USC at Husky Stadium. The Trojans came into the game at #5 in the country and had won the conference for three consecutive years. UW annihilated USC out of the gate and took a 24-0 lead into the half. After the game, USC QB Todd Marinovich provided the immortal quote, “I just saw purple. That’s all I saw. No numbers, no faces, just purple.”
UW also crushed WSU in the Apple Cup by a 55-10 margin. The Cougs’ only touchdown came in the fourth quarter against UW’s reserves. Similarly, UW cruised past Big 10 champ Iowa in the Rose Bowl with a 25-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes made it look respectable by cutting it to 46-34 at the end, but the result was never in doubt.
The offensive changes start at the top for the Huskies. After 11 years on the UW staff and seven as the Offensive Coordinator, Gary Pinkel moved on to become the head man at Toledo (who the Dawgs will play in a non-conference game this year). Pinkel played tight end for Don James at Kent State and eventually followed him to UW. Keith Gilbertson will take over Pinkel’s role as the OC. Gilbertson has been with UW for the last two years as the offensive line coach. Gilbertson comes from Snohomish Washignton and graduated from Central Washington after playing two years on the o-line at Hawaii. He has significant experience for a 43-year old coach, including three years as the OC for the USFL’s LA Express, two years under Dennis Erickson on the staff at Idaho, and a 28-9 record of his own as the head coach for the Vandals.
The QB room looked to be a position of strength for Gilbertson with solid returning experience. Then, incumbent starter Mark Brunell tore a ligament in his knee during spring practice and will not be fully healthy to start the season. Although the Dawgs featured a run-heavy attack on their way to the Rose Bowl last season, Brunell provided a steady hand with a 14/8 TD/INT ratio. He also added to the ground game with 444 yards and 10 TDs with his feet.
While Brunell recovers, Billy Joe Hobert will line up under center. Hobert, a sophomore from Puyallup, has only six collegiate pass attempts under his belt, but can replicate some of Brunell’s mobility and has the added ability to punt when needed.
If Hobert has a big job in filling Brunell’s shoes, then the running backs have a titanic job in trying to replace Greg Lewis. Last year’s Doak Walker Award winner was the unquestioned centerpiece of the offense. He ran for 1279 yards and eight TDs on 5.6 yards per carry. He also caught 345 yards worth of passes. With Lewis gone to the Denver Broncos, the Huskies will rely on a variety of backs. Electric return specialist Beno Bryant will be the first man up. He showed explosiveness as Lewis’s primary backup in his sophomore campaign, but will need to prove he can handle a heavier workload. Juniors Jay Barry and Darius Turner provide more size and power in short yardage situations. Fullback Matt Jones will see action in two-back sets and is capable of catching the ball out of the backfield. Keep an eye on true freshman Napoleon Kaufman, who possesses blazing speed.
The receiving corps returns a much larger portion of its production. In fact, Lewis was not only the leading rusher to graduate, he was also by far the leading receiver gone from last year’s squad. The excellent Mario Bailey and Orlando McKay return as big play threats on the outside. In addition to his wheels, Bailey proved an adept pass-catcher last year with 40 total receptions. Local senior Aaron Pierce returns as an excellent blocking tight end.
The offensive line unit that Gilbertson coached last year remains strong with four returning regulars. Guard and offensive captain Dean Kirkland graduated, as did guard Rick Schulberg. Junior Pete Kaligis and sophomore Kris Rongen appear ready to step into those roles. Kaligis, in particular, saw playing time through the 1990 season. Ed Cunnignham returns as a senior captain at center. Lincoln Kennedy was so dominant at LT that he earned significant playing time as a sophomore. Senior Siupeli Malamala brings stability to the other side of the line.
The strength of the 1990 squad was the defense and it looks like that will be true again this season. The Huskies allowed 15.3 points per game, which was good for 8th in the entire nation. Jim Lambright returns for his 15th season as defensive coordinator and promises to use the same aggressive, blitzing style that has brought the team success.
Of the 13 defenders who were part of the regular rotation, 10 return. Two of the three departures came on the defensive line. Nose guard John Cook and defensive end Travis Richardson both graduated. Even without them, the defensive line should be able to wreak havoc. Defensive end Steve Emtman was one of the most disruptive forces in the country as a sophomore and promises to do more of the same as a junior. Oklahoma transfer Tyrone Rodgers has the size and athleticism to slide into the interior role that Cook played last year and sophomore D’Marco Farr appears to have a similar ability to eat up blockers. Andy Mason will line up on the other end and senior captain Donald Jones can play a DE/LB edge rushing role to terrorize opposing backfields.
In addition to Jones, the linebacker position is full of talented upperclassmen. Dave Hoffman, Chico Fraley, Brett Collins, and Jamie Fields should gobble up ball-carriers, and Hillary Butler provides quality depth behind them. Even after the departure of DB Charles Mincy to the NFL, the secondary is similarly loaded. Walter Bailey and Dana Hall have playmaking ability as corners. Shane Pahukoa is a hard-hitter at free safety Tommie Smith will line up next to him.
One of the ten best defenses in the country returns almost all of its most important players and brings in a pair of defensive linemen with loads of potential. Is it possible that this year’s Dawg defense could somehow be even better? If it turns out that way, it will be a scary thought for opponents.
The biggest question for this team will be offensive production. With Lewis’s graduation, it appeared that Brunell would handle more of the load. For a team with legitimate national title aspirations, there’s not much margin for error at the QB position, especially with a road-trip to Nebraska in week two. Billy Joe Hobert will have to be smart and effective- more than just a game manager with this group of game-breaking receivers. That’s a lot to ask for a sophomore with almost no collegiate experience. Then again, it’s a lot to ask to win the conference two years in a row and contend for a national title.
Entering the season, USC looks like the toughest challenger in conference once again. Even though their 8-4-1 record last year was a step down for the mighty Trojans and star QB Todd Marinovich has left for the NFL, 1000 yard rusher Mazio Royster and a dangerous defense are back. UCLA will start the year at #24. Even though they only went 5-6 last year, QB Tommy Maddox is back and the team could improve significantly if they can tighten up defensively. Finally, California looks to be on the upswing after finishing 3rd in the conference and returning QB Mike Pawlawski and 1000 yard rusher Russell White.
The Huskies won’t get any breaks in their schedule because they play both USC and Cal on the road in addition to the showdown with Nebraska. The Dawgs open the season against Stanford in Palo Alto. While the Cardinal aren’t a heavyweight, they are more than just a tune-up game after they played spoiler to #1 Notre Dame last season in South Bend. The Huskies will be tested early and often on the road. Will they be able to answer the bell with an unproven QB and a new group of runners out of the gate? Check back in this space next week to find out more.