Don James had turned the Washington program into one of significance, earning three Rose Bowl bids (1977, 1980, 1981) in a Pac-10 long dominated by USC and UCLA. The last couple years had seen Washington come up short of New Year’s Day, settling for Aloha Bowl trips both times. The 1984 Washington Huskies opened the season as an unlikely candidate to return to the New Year’s stage, much less stake a credible claim for the national championship. But that’s exactly what they did.
Hugh Millen was fairly mediocre at quarterback. The 52% completion rate and 6.1 yards-per-attempt weren’t bad by the standards of the time, but he only threw for 1,051 yards and the TD-INT ratio was 5-9. No receiver put up any notable numbers. Jacque Robinson was a good running back, and his 901 yards were fourth in the conference, but the Huskies weren’t going to win a scoring race with anybody.
Nor were they bursting at the seams with defensive talent. Vestee Jackson, who would eventually have an eight-year run with the Chicago Bears, was a talented cornerback, but other than that, Washington had to win with coaching, discipline and execution.
They opened the season ranked #18 and shutout Northwestern 26-0 to get the year started. The Huskies then paid a visit to Ann Arbor, where Michigan was ranked #3. Washington’s opportunistic style made the difference. They intercepted Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh three times and got five turnovers in all. Leading 10-3 in the third quarter, Millen hit Mark Pattison on a 73-yard touchdown pass to break the game open.
Washington won 20-11 and even though this would prove to be a disappointing Michigan team, one that would go 6-5, the glow of this win had the Huskies zooming up to #9 in the polls.
A 35-7 victory over eventual SWC co-champ Houston followed. Washington then beat Miami-Ohio 53-7 and got by lowly Oregon State 19-7. Washington’s perfect record, combined with chaos at the top of the polls had them suddenly sitting at #2 in the country. On October 13, the Huskies blew out mediocre Stanford 37-15 while Texas and Oklahoma—the teams directly ahead and behind them in the rankings—played to a tie. Washington was now ranked #1.
James’ team won a pedestrian 17-10 decision over an average Oregon team and they beat a pretty good Arizona club 28-12. The Huskies concluded their three-game homestand by beating up two-win Cal 44-14. The stage was set for November 10 at Southern Cal.
USC was ranked #14, thanks to an early loss to LSU, but the Trojans were undefeated in league play. No one else was close enough to catch either Washington or USC, so the winner of this game would clinch the Rose Bowl spot. Washington couldn’t get anything going offensively the entire day, fell behind and their passing game problems were exposed in a 16-7 loss. They slipped to #8.
The Huskies were still in the mix for a major bowl bid even if it wouldn’t be Pasadena. The traditional season finale with Washington State wouldn’t be easy. The Cougars had six wins, they had the Pac-10 MVP in running back Reuben Mayes and quarterback Mark Rypien would one day star at the Washington on the other side of the country—with the Redskins, where he was a Super Bowl MVP.
James had his team ready to go though and they played a good offensive game, winning 38-29 and nudging their way back to #4. The Orange Bowl, needing an opponent for #2 Oklahoma came calling.
The Orange Bowl was at the center of a raging national debate. BYU was ranked #1, but played a weak schedule and then played in the Holiday Bowl (as they were contractually obligated to do) on December 21, barely escaping Michigan 24-17. Third-ranked Florida had a loss and a tie and was on probation. While BYU was expected to win the final vote, their critics were pointing to the Orange Bowl as the place where the national title should be settled.
The Huskies jumped down the throats of the Sooners with two first-quarter touchdowns. The Sooners answered with a pair of TDs of their own and kicked a field goal for a 17-14 lead. But Millen found Pattison on a 29-yard touchdown pass with a little less than nine minutes to play, putting Washington back on top and they tacked on one more touchdown to seal the 28-17 win.
BYU would win the vote. There are some of us who believe that Washington, with a tougher schedule and more impressive win over the common foe of Michigan, would have been a better choice. But if nothing else, Washington was back into the national conversation. And with the benefit of history we know that James eventually got that elusive national title, sharing the crown with Miami in 1991.