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Huskies

Sunday, September 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Backing up the bravado

Seattle Times staff columnist

This team is different. Older. More mature. Much more resilient.

These Huskies aren't like their recent predecessors, so willing, so quickly, to pack it in, to quit in the face of adversity.

This team doesn't faint when it falls behind, as it did Saturday. It doesn't panic even when it is being out-gained by UCLA 188 yards to minus-4 late in the first half.

It doesn't listen to the boos when they rain as they did in the second quarter, when senior quarterback Isaiah Stanback was sacked on third-and-three.

These Huskies made plays in the second half when the clock was leaking minutes and hope was fading like the early-evening sun.

This Washington team is beginning to understand winning. It is learning how to maintain confidence in its game plan even when nothing in the book seems to be working.

Discovering how to stitch together marches in the swelter of the fourth quarter.

Trailing by five with 10:32 left in the game, Stanback took the Huskies 46 yards in six plays for their first lead.

He dropped a perfect fade pass into Anthony Russo's arms for 23 yards. Hit Sonny Shackelford for 7 yards, then ran a draw for 6 more.

And on second-and-goal he lasered a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Johnie Kirton and followed that with a two-point conversion pass to Kirton, who was standing a couple of steps inside the end zone.

And to think that, two weeks ago, a cadre of Huskies fans already were calling for the freshman Jake Locker to replace Stanback.

Memo to those fans:

The offense belongs to Stanback, and he knows what to do with it.

This was the sun-kissed Saturday we learned about the 2006 Huskies. We discovered that the recent Huskies swagger isn't false. There is bite to their bravado.

Washington might not be a top-25 team, but it is capable of sweeping its six home games and proved Saturday that, at 3-1, it is a legitimate bowl contender.

It rewarded the purple-clad pack that came to Husky Stadium more ready for this game than it has been for any game in four years. The seismic shake of the stadium on third downs rekindled the memories of Todd Marinovich's struggles back in the halcyon days of Huskies football.

The crowd of 58,255 woke up the echoes. It was a reminder of just how much fun Saturdays on Montlake used to be — and can be again.

The Huskies beat UCLA 29-19 by riding the legs and arm of its inextinguishable quarterback Stanback. He still makes the occasional throw he shouldn't make. Still is a little loose with the football in his hands, but Stanback is terminally undaunted.

He completed 18 of 29 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns. He ran 13 times for 48 yards.

And when the game and — who knows? — the season might have been slipping away, Stanback led the Huskies on a grinding nine-play, 92-yard drive to cut UCLA's halftime lead to 16-7.

He converted two third downs, one a 17-yard pass to Quintin Daniels and the other a 23-yard score to Shackelford.

All game, Stanback looked for and found Shackelford, who has suffered with his quarterback for these past four years. Shackelford scored on touchdown passes of 23 and 28 yards and caught nine balls for 120 yards.

The Huskies' defense made UCLA settle for field goals when the game was dangerously close to getting out of reach.

That defense surfed the momentum created by linebacker Tahj Bomar's fourth-quarter blindside sack when UCLA still led 19-14. And it took control of the game when linebacker Dan Howell intercepted Ben Olson's pass and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown that gave the Huskies a 29-19 lead with 6:02 left.

These Huskies played old-time Washington football.

They survived their mistakes. Came back from a 16-0 deficit. And held a flammable UCLA offense to a mere five first downs in the second half.

This was, without a doubt, the most meaningful victory in the two-year Tyrone Willingham tenure. It was the first game that truly meant something since former coach Rick Neuheisel started the program on its rapid decline.

Washington needed this win to shine some light on the program. It needed to win a game like this, on an afternoon this perfect, in front of a national television audience to regain some stature, to open more doors to the homes of more recruits.

And beating UCLA tells Washington's hard-suffering fans the Huskies are on the way back. The Willingham Era is beginning. The future can be as bright as the late-afternoon sun that soaked the stadium green.

These Huskies are finding ways to win.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@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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