The Washington Huskies had become a nationally respected program under the leadership of head coach Don James, going back to a Rose Bowl upset of Michigan in 1977 when Warren Moon quarterbacked the Huskies.
There would be consecutive trips to Pasadena in 1980-81, including a victory in ’81. There was an Orange Bowl win and #2 national finish in 1984. James returned to Pasadena in 1990 and won another Rose Bowl. All that was missing was a national title—and the 1991 Washington Huskies filled in the last line of James’ resume.
Washington came into the 1991 season ranked #4 in the nation and stacked with players the NFL could love. Eleven Huskies would go in the following spring’s draft and it started with defensive tackle Steve Emtman. He won both the Outland and Lombardi Trophies in ’91 and was the first overall pick by the NFL in the spring of 1992.
Defensive back Dana Hall was another future first-round choice. There were three good offensive lineman, center Ed Cunningham, guard Kris Rongen and tackle Siupeli Malamala. The linebacking corps was led by future draftees Brett Collins and Chico Fraley.
Where the question mark lay was at quarterback. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Mark Brunnell had led the way in 1990 and had a long and successful NFL career in front of him. But in spring practice, he was lost for what would prove to be most of the season. Fortunately, James was able to plug in Billy Joe Hobert and Washington didn’t miss a beat.
Hobert completed 61 percent of his passes, threw for over 2,200 yards and tossed 22 touchdown passes. He had a 1,000-yard receiver in Mario Bailey and a running back in Beno Bryant who neared that same 1K threshold.
Washington opened the season by hammering Stanford on the road, 42-7. This was a Cardinal team that would win eight games, and get their head coach, Dennis Green, the Minnesota Vikings gig the following year. They were no match for Washington, although there is no record of whether Green thundered to the press corps afterward about “They were, who we thought they were!”
After a week off, Washington went to ninth-ranked Nebraska. The Cornhuskers led 21-9 late in the third quarter, and it looked this game would mark another year where Washington was good and maybe even Rose Bowl-bound, but not national title material. Then the fourth quarter happened.
Bryant ran for one touchdown. Hobert both ran and threw to get two more and Washington led 29-21. Then Jay Barry sealed the deal with an 81-yard jaunt. Washington outrushed Nebraska 335-135 and held the ball for 35 minutes, effectively dominating a proud program known for its control of the trenches.
Washington blasted Kansas State and nudged to #3 in the polls. It was only September, but the Huskies had a poll problem. Florida State and Miami had the top two spots. While they would play each other, and allow Washington access to #2, there wasn’t much reason to expect either team to lose outside of when they played each other. And with the Huskies locked into the Rose Bowl against the Big Ten champ, they could get left out of the national title situation.
For the time being, all there was to do was play football and Washington did it exceptionally well. They spun consecutive shutouts of Arizona and Toledo, a combined score of 102-0. Another tough road game came against seventh-ranked Cal. The Golden Bears would enjoy a 9-2 season and their being passed over for a major bowl bid in favor of three-loss Notre Dame would generate outrage. Cal’s showing against Washington showed why.
The game was tied 17-17 after three quarters. Bryant, just as he had at Nebraska, made the big run on the road when his team needed it most. A 65-yard jaunt made it 24-17. The defense made it stand up, but not before Cal got to the 18-yard line was able to attempt a last pass into the end zone. It was the closest the Huskies would come all year to being defeated.
Washington closed the regular season with five straight wins over Pac-10 opponents by a combined 148 points. Miami beat Florida State on November 16, but one week later, the Huskies got the break they were looking for.
While they took care of business on the field and ended the regular season with a 56-21 blasting of Washington State in the Apple Cup rivalry game, Miami struggled in a win over a pedestrian Boston College team. This combined with the sentiments from a lot of people that Washington deserved its day in the sun.
The Huskies, after all, had won two huge games on the road and dominated a pretty good schedule. It took nothing away from Miami to suggest that Washington at least win a share of the national title. While the writers kept Miami at #1, the coaches—perhaps motivated by sentiment for James—elevated Washington to #1.
Michigan still awaited in the Rose Bowl and the Wolverines were ranked #4, with the Heisman Trophy winner in Desmond Howard at receiver and returning kicks. Miami played Nebraska, only ranked #11 and already beaten down by Washington in their own backyard. Miami would get the Cornhuskers in a literal home game at the Orange Bowl. If nothing else, the Huskies probably didn’t have to worry about style points. Just win, and at least a share of the national title would be theirs.
The Rose Bowl was scoreless in the first quarter and the teams traded touchdowns in the second. Washington then drove inside the 10-yard line twice, but had to settle for field goals. A game they should have been in command of, was a competitive 13-7 at the half.
It didn’t matter. The Huskies dominated after intermission. Hobert threw a short touchdown pass and then converted the two-point play. He tossed another scoring pass in the fourth quarter. Brunnell, who had gotten healthy enough to get some reps, even got in the act, hitting Bailey on a 38-yard touchdown pass that made it 34-7 and all but sealed it.
Michigan got a meaningless touchdown and Washington could have answered, when they moved past the Wolverine five-yard line in the final minute. James, even with a critical vote hanging in the balance, did the right thing and simply took a knee, leaving the final at 34-14.
Miami, a great team in their own right, showcased the best defense in the country in shutting down Nebraska 22-0. They had beaten Florida State on the road and were a worthy championship team themselves.
Given that, what happened in 1991 was a case of the polls combining, albeit unintentionally, to do the right thing. Each held their #1 ranking, Miami with the writers, Washington with the coaches. James was, at long last, a national champion.