Huskies stowed the hype

Huskies stowed the hype

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

It took, what, 50 years after the Gipper went Hollywood for the American football fan to rid himself of the quaint notion that the pre-game speech has any impact on the final score.

Well, Rick Neuheisel has just set the game back 50 years, apparently.

We add the disclaimer because we weren’t privy to the Rick’s remarks on the eve of Washington’s entertaining 34-29 dismantling of fourth-ranked Miami on Saturday. Also because we must adhere to the cynical sports writer’s code which limits the things we can find truly inspirational to a row to ourselves on the flight home and extra cheese on the large combo.

But we did have a mole in the room in Huskies defensive tackle Larry Tripplett, which makes him more or less the author of the theory.

Actually, he was the author of the speech, too.

Among the least appreciated qualities in a good coach is the ability to listen. So when Tripplett was asked for his thoughts at the team captains’ weekly audience with the boss, he may have been surprised to find Neuheisel tuned in.

The player’s plea: Turn down the hype.

In Miami, the Huskies were facing their first top 10 opponent outside the Pacific-10 Conference since they played Nebraska in 1997 and ’98, which just happened to be Tripplett’s first two years in the program. That first year, the Huskies had ridiculously climbed to No. 2 in the polls themselves, only to be bounced by the Cornhuskers 27- 14. The next year in Lincoln, the embarrassment was truly profound – a 55-7 pounding when the Dawgs were still ranked eighth.

In 1996, there had been the 54-20 humiliation at the hands of Notre Dame and – well, you get the picture.

In rising to the occasion, the pre-Rick Dawgs ranked just behind the skippers of the Titanic and Hindenburg.

“I’d seen those teams and I’d seen how the coaching staff approached big games,” Tripplett said. “What I told him is that you have to take this game like it’s a regular game, like we do every game, and that way you stay consistent. I wanted us to not look so much at Miami and more at what we have to do.

“I know what can happen with young guys who come into a game like this all wide-eyed. And sometimes coaches get excited, too. They may act cool, but they get excited and I just wanted to tell him to be careful about that.”

Well, now Neuheisel will really have to be careful. Because the Huskies truly have something to be excited about.

The awkward moments they suffered down the stretch are not to be dismissed, but for a half the Huskies had the Hurricanes handled – it was 21-3 at intermission, and only vaguely that close – and then made just enough plays and just few enough mistakes to hang on.

Hey, some of it was done with mirrors. After harping all week on the necessity of ball control, the Huskies had a 15-minute edge in time of possession even though their top three tailbacks – Paul Arnold, Braxton Cleman and Willie Hurst – combined for all of 12 yards rushing.

If that’s not a violation of the time-space continuum, it’s hard to know what is, but mostly its an example of how well the Huskies mixed things up and kept UM guessing.

But there were plenty of other examples in which UW just outachieved the Canes. Maligned as ciphers, the Husky receivers, for example, more than held their own against Miami’s swift secondary – as did the two freshman cornerbacks Washington often had to send out to defend the fringes. Tripplett himself was remarkable, a dominant defender with just four tackles to his name.

And, of course, there was quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, who threw for 223 yards and ran for 45 more and generally spent the afternoon borrowing Heisman votes from Miami’s Santana Moss.

“He’s going to take this team a long way,” offered Miami cornerback Leonard Myers.

If the final score was too close for UW’s comfort, they must also know they were on the verge of breaking the game wide open in the fourth quarter – letting those chances slip away when Tui threw an interception in the red zone when he was hit just as he delivered the ball, and when an illegal formation call (just six men on the line) wiped out a gorgeous option keeper for 30-some yards.

Yeah, he had all three of UW’s turnovers, too.

“But he always does more good than he does bad, if that makes sense,” said offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson. “Nobody’s going to play a perfect game. It’s not the NFL where you’re looking for the guy to hand it off and throw a couple of short ones. This is a different game.

“He reminds a lot of Mark Brunell. He’s competitive, tough, wants to win. A lot of people didn’t think he (Tuiasosopo) could be much of a throwing quarterback and I think he’s proven them wrong.”

And the Huskies, well, they’re proving whatever it is they think they need to prove – which, at this point, is that their reclamation from enforced and self-inflicted mediocrity is at least keeping pace with that of Miami.

This will not please Neuheisel’s many critics, who did their damnedest to discount any strides made last year – stressing that the final record was only a game better than what Jim Lambright put up the year before and ignoring the difference in the way the Huskies finished, how much better prepared they were and, yes, how they carried themselves against the better teams.

And how they carry themselves now.

“This game was just getting too hyped,” complained Tripplett. “If I heard `Santana Moss’ one more time, I was going to go crazy. And their team speed – fine, enough. We know they’re very good. But sometimes you’ve got to focus in on us, and Coach Neuheisel did a great job of that.

“The speech he gave last night – he called up every player on the team and said, `This is why we’re going to beat Miami. We have Larry Tripplett’s quickness. We have Derrell Daniels, who makes every tackle.’ Guys started looking at each other and thinking: Hey, we’re pretty good, too.

“It was the best thing he ever did.”

Up to now. Hey, you’ve got to work up to the Gipper stuff.

Copyright 2000 Cowles Publishing Company

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