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Sunday, September 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bud Withers

Hard to overstate this win

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Depending on whom you listened to, there was enough gravity attached to Saturday's Washington-Fresno State game to make it tantamount to disarming North Korea, or at least to neutralizing Iran's ability to enrich uranium.

The game would swing Washington's season, either to dizzying heights or unspeakable depths. It would gauge progress under Tyrone Willingham. A loss might prove debilitating to the ozone layer.

"It's monumentous," said Dick Baird, a former Huskies assistant coach, on the pregame radio show.

Gee, maybe it was. After UW had slithered past Fresno State 21-20 at Husky Stadium, a bevy of assistant coaches left their customary station in the press box and bolted for the elevator to join the team, as per usual.

"Woo, hoo!" howled Kent Baer, the defensive coordinator. Willingham wasn't quoted quite the same way afterward, but he did say of the 2-1 start, "It's the next-best thing to being 3-0."

In terms of Willingham euphoria, that's the next-best thing to confetti and a lampshade over his head.

Even Willingham had allowed the magic phrase "bowl game" to creep into his comments during the week. Bowl games, of course, are not usually clinched in September, but you can start pouring footings for them now, and the Huskies did that in beating a solid program that would compete well in the Pac-10.

"This is the biggest win I've had in a few years here," said senior offensive guard Clay Walker.

It probably was bigger than the rout at Arizona last year, although that was affirmation for Willingham's agenda. But that Huskies team was going nowhere, so the victory probably qualifies as the best at UW since the 2003 Apple Cup, when it denied a 10-win Washington State team.

Sometimes you win games just by hanging in there and staying with it and waiting for the other guy to flinch, and that's pretty much what happened here on a late-summer afternoon.

The Huskies didn't turn the ball over. There was no killing fumble near the goal line as there was at Oklahoma last week.

"It's critical," said Willingham. "Basically, if you know who won the turnover battle, you know who won the game."

Seemingly, Fresno State weighed in with some dubious decisions that kept the Huskies in the game. Using bruiser Dwayne Wright, the Bulldogs marched for an opening touchdown, and quickly stopped Washington without a first down.

Then Fresno State was third-and-three at the UW 45. At that point, Wright had rumbled for 7.1 yards per carry, and the crowd was busying itself by booing at the scoreboard showing Oregon's victory over Oklahoma.

Fresno State passed, or tried to, and quarterback Tom Brandstater was sacked. Drive done.

Having tied it at 14 in the third quarter, the Bulldogs knuckled down again, starting a drive from their 21, using Mr. Wright again. Ten plays later — nine of them runs — Fresno was on the UW 32 with a first down. Of course, that was time for a fake-reverse pass, which was almost intercepted. Stalled drive and no points.

Asked if his team abandoned the run too early, Brandstater said, "No, our problem was consistency. We'd run the ball well, then we'd get to third down and have a breakdown."

Said Pat Hill, the veteran Fresno State coach, "We've got to do a better job of getting the ball downfield in the passing game."

Gashed by Wright, the Huskies decided to edge safety C.J. Wallace closer to the line and make Brandstater beat them. He couldn't.

"We moved him up one yard," said Washington secondary coach J.D. Williams of Wallace, "and he was able to fit versus the run just a little better."

By then, it was all coming down to the little things — Caesar Rayford's blocked extra point after a low snap, and a hideous, ensuing Fresno kickoff that somehow landed end-over-end out of bounds. That gave the Huskies field position at their 35.

"I'm ecstatic," said Walker. "Coach has been telling us we need to keep buying in and playing our butts off."

There was even some buy-in from the assembled 57,012. OK, so it wasn't like Todd Marinovich-all-I-saw-was-purple in 1990, or the Nebraska night game in 1992, but it made an impression on Williams.

"They did a great job," he said of the fans. "Coming from Cal last year, the crowd here, they're really into the game. As for there [Cal], they're a little more laid-back. It's a good feeling just to have the crowd behind us."

It should be back. UCLA is here next weekend in the conference opener. About all you can say is, it's monumentous.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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Football schedule

DateOpponentTimeTV
Sept. 2San Jose StateW, 35-29
Sept. 9at OklahomaL, 37-20
Sept. 16Fresno StateW, 21-20
Sept. 23UCLAW, 29-19
Sept. 30at ArizonaW, 21-10
Oct. 7at USCL, 26-20
Oct. 14Oregon StateL, 27-17
Oct. 21at CaliforniaL, 31-24, OT
Oct. 28Arizona StateL, 26-23, OT
Nov. 4at OregonL, 34-14
Nov. 11StanfordL, 20-3
Nov. 18at Washington StateW, 35-32

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