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Washington Huskies

Washington’s future found in its past

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

On a night when the University of Washington honored the late Don James, the 2016 Huskies would have made the program’s legendary former head coach and Hall of Famer proud.

The 2016 season marks the 25th anniversary of James’ crowning achievement at Washington, when he coached the Huskies to a perfect record and national championship. This year’s Dawgs have a long way to go to prove they’re up to the standard of the former Dawgfather’s ’91 capos, but holding the defending Pac-12 champions to a single score in a 44-6 rout certainly conjures memories of a quarter-century ago.

Steve Emtman patrolled the defensive line for the 1991 Washington defense, arguably the greatest in program history. His efforts in leading the Huskies to a 61.5-yards-per-game rushing yield made him a Heisman contender that season.

All the Heisman hoopla heading into Friday’s affair orbited around Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey. Last year’s runner-up for the stiff-arm trophy mustered just 49 yards against this Husky defense.

Of course, 49 yards looks downright impressive compared to 29, which is all Stanford totaled as a team. For those keeping score, that’s 32.5 yards less than the historic output Emtman and the ’91 Huskies allowed each time they took the field.

The steep drop in Stanford rushing yardage from McCaffrey’s 49 yards, to a team total of 29, can be credited to an overwhelming pass rush, just like James would have drawn it up.

As far as Heisman hype goes, UW quarterback Jake Browning just may have thrust himself into the conversation. His 15-of-21, three-touchdown night was as close to flawless as any quarterback’s been against a Stanford defense in the last few years. The running back tandem of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman peppered the Cardinal front with jabs via the run game.

Credit the offensive line for bullying Stanford unlike any opponent in years. Not bad for a unit that was something of an unknown coming into the season.

Chris Petersen’s greatest challenge taking over as Washington head coach before the 2014 season was making his own name. He’d done exactly that at Boise State, building on the foundation Dan Hawkins set.

While Friday was a night for remembering Don James, it also serves as the Washington coming-out party for Petersen. Like Michael Corleone taking over the family business from Don Vito, the lineage of the Dawgfather unfolded with a bang.

Washington football certainly was not in dire straits when Petersen replaced Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian’s last team won nine games, a high-water mark for the program after a string of seven-win campaigns that earned Sarkisian the unflattering nickname, “Seven-Win Sark.”

A seven-win season was a veritable bonanza after the brutal 2000s, a lost decade in which the Huskies suffered through some lower-tier finishes in the former Pac-10, including an 0-12 finish in 2008.

Sarkisian pulled Washington out of the depths, but Petersen is restoring its former glory.

Projections he’d do just that rolled in throughout the offseason, to such an extent it felt nigh impossible for the 2016 Dawgs to meet the expectations. As a personal aside, I’ll own my doubt, which was only exacerbated in Week 4, when Washington escaped Arizona with an overtime win.

Not that the Dawgfather himself didn’t sweat out some decisions in the Desert. In his final season as head coach, Arizona stunned Washington in what remains arguably the biggest upset in Wildcat history.

Of course, those 1992 Huskies regrouped to win the conference and appear in the Rose Bowl Game. The 2016 Huskies regrouped from what was still a win in Tucson, and subsequently scored what might well be the program’s best win since beating Purdue in the 2001 Rose Bowl.

Is another January date in Pasadena in this Washington team’s future? Perhaps — but in the new landscape of college football, the Rose Bowl isn’t the ultimate measure of the Huskies’ prowess.

A College Football Playoff in 1991 would have provided James’ Huskies an opportunity to declare themselves rightful national champions. Instead, they split the crown with Miami that season.

Should the 2016 Washington Huskies continue to perform at this level, they’ll earn the opportunity to hoist the championship at the end of a tournament.

Don James could not have a more fitting ode.

Washington’s future found in its past

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