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.
If you missed it, check out the season preview in Part 1.
Week 1 at Stanford
Even though the Huskies came into Palo Alto as the #4 team in the country, the Cardinal had plenty of reason for optimism entering the season. Head Coach Denny Green improved the team in each of his first two seasons, knocked off #1 Notre Dame in South Bend in 1990, and finished the season on a three-game winning streak. Add in talented freshman QB Steve Stenstrom and Oklahoma transfer Glyn Milburn in the backfield, and Stanford came into the game looking like a team poised to make just its second bowl game in the last decade.
A dominant Husky defense quickly undermined the positive feelings in Stanford. The Huskies controlled both sides of the ball on the way to a 42-7 drubbing. Joel Barry scored the first of his two TDs early in the second quarter on his way to a team-leading 81 rushing yards. Sophomore Billy Joe Hobert made his first start in the stead of injured Mark Brunell and settled the nerves of Husky fans who worried about a national title contender without a proven QB. Hobert threw an arcing pass to Mario Bailey for a TD to go up 21-7 in the closing seconds of the first half. He put the game away with a 20-yard touchdown to his high school teammate Joe Kralik early in the fourth. On the day, Hobert completed 23 of 34 passes for 244 yards and one interception against his two touchdowns. He performance earned him Pac-10 player of the week honors.
Even more impressive was the UW defense. Superstar defensive lineman Steve Emtman deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage and gathered it in for an interception in the third quarter. It was one of six turnovers the Dawgs forced on the day. UW held Milburn and the Cardinal to 28 total rushing yards and outgained Stanford 415-238. Even Green was impressed with the Husky defense, saying, “That’s an excellent defense. I don’t think we’ll see any better one this season.”
Week 2 at #9 Nebraska
It was a tale of two halves in the top-10 showdown between the Huskies and Huskers in Lincoln. While UW moved the ball all day, the Dawgs made enough mistakes early in the game to allow Nebraska to build a 21-9 lead. From that point forward, the Dawgs scored four unanswered touchdowns to pull away for a 36-21 win. The Husky offense featured a balanced attack that was effective enough to let their dominant defense take over the game.
Lots of positive signs pointed in Nebraska’s direction headed into this match-up. The Huskers brought back numerous starters from 1990’s squad that won nine games and finished 10th nationally in scoring offense and 14th in scoring defense. They opened the season by beating Utah State and Colorado State by a combined score of 130-42, and welcomed the Dawgs to Lincoln, where they lost only one game in three prior seasons.
The early part of the game looked like that home-field advantage might be the deciding factor. Huskies sophomore QB Billy Joe Hobert was erratic with his passing and the Dawgs committed ill-timed penalties (55 yards’ worth prior to the half) that side-tracked drive after drive. California native Derek Bryant plowed for tough yards against the UW defense. After a pair of Hobert interceptions, Beno Bryant muffed a punt inside his own five yard-line. The Huskers recovered it and Brown punched in the touchdown to put Nebraska up 21-9 in the third quarter.
From that moment forward, Hobert and the Husky offense flipped a switch and could not be stopped. It didn’t hurt that the defense overwhelmed Nebraska and put the offense in good positions on one possession after another. Jay Barry and Bryat formed combined for a formidable rushing attack and both accumulated over 100 yards. Hobert repeatedly found Mario Bailey and Orlando McKay getting open against single coverage. It was a blueprint of what this Husky team wants its offense to look like on its best day.
The turning point of the game came after a Hobert touchdown to Bailey was called back due to holding. It set up a third-and-27. Hobert scrambled for 19 yards then completed a pass to McKay for a first down on fourth-and-8. Bryant scored on the next play.
That score opened the floodgates. Bryant scored again on the next drive to give UW its first lead. Nebraska QB Keithen McCant fumbled on the next drive and Hobert hit McKay to stretch the lead. Finally, Barry broke loose for an 81-yard run with five minutes left in the game to put the game out of reach. While the offense gets the statistical accolades, the defense absolutely terrorized Nebraska. The Huskers’ 21-point output is well below their average, and required a two-yard TD drive to even crack 20. Steve Emtman was all over the field and disrupted numerous option attempts. Donald Dones and Hilary Butler got in the backfield when McCant tried to throw. Dana Hall overcame an early rib injury to dominate the secondary. Dave Hoffman was the star of the linebacker corps with lots of big hits and the game-ending INT.
To be sure, Tom Osborne would have gladly taken a game where UW turned the ball over three times and committed 90+ yards worth of penalties. But those self-inflicted wounds were not enough to derail UW because its offensive production was so much better than Nebraska’s. In the end, the yardage difference was a shocking 618-308 in UW’s favor.
The Huskies have a long way to go to achieve their goal of winning a national championship, but this win might prove to be their most difficult test of the year. The Dawgs will face off with a lesser Big 8 foe when Kansas State travels to Seattle next week before conference play begins in earnest.