Washington wasn’t on anyone’s radar when the 1977 season began. The Huskies had not reached the Rose Bowl since 1963 and James had gone 11-11 his first two years in Seattle. The way the 1977 Washington Huskies started the season wouldn’t have given anyone an indication that things had changed. But by the time the year was over, they were Rose Bowl champs and a new era of success had begun.
Warren Moon was at quarterback. The future NFL Hall of Famer won co-MVP honors in the Pac-8 Conference this season. Moon’s big play target was Spider Gaines, whose 30 catches went for over 22 yards a pop. Joe Steele was a good rusher, going for over 800 yards and his 25 catches were a nice total for a running back in this era.
Steele was joined in the backfield by Ron Gipson, who averaged nearly five yards per carry as a change of pace. They both ran behind a line that was anchored by a pair of all-conference players. There was Jeff Toews at guard. And center Blair Bush had a long NFL career ahead of him.
Defensively, Washington was led by All-Pac-8 players in linebacker Michael Jackson and defensive back Nesby Glasgow, another player with a pro career in his future. The Huskies were a well-balanced team and finished in the top 30 nationally for both scoring offense and scoring defense.
Those rankings are low for a major bowl winner, and the reason was an awful start in non-conference play. Washington was unranked to begin that year and the first four games showed why. They played three mediocre teams in Mississippi State, Syracuse, and Minnesota, all of whom hovered around the .500 mark. The Huskies lost all three games. In between, they managed to beat a bad San Jose State team, but were still 1-3 going into league play in October.
When the Pac-8 slate began it was like a switch flipped. A trip to play Oregon was the third straight road game, coming off the losses at Syracuse and Minnesota. While the Ducks were a terrible team, there was no reason to see the 54-0 beatdown coming.
Washington came back home to play Stanford. The Cardinal had a good offense. Their quarterback, Guy Benjamin, shared Pac-8 MVP honors with Moon. Running back Darrin Nelson would have a successful NFL run with the Minnesota Vikings. Wide receiver James Lofton went on to a Hall of Fame pro career. And Stanford had a rookie coach who turned out to be a pretty good—a guy by the name of Bill Walsh.
In the face of all that, the Huskies won easily, 45-21. They were back to .500 at 3-3.
The next two weeks were a little tougher. Washington played a ho-hum game in beating lowly Oregon State 14-6. Their trip to UCLA resulted in a 20-12 loss.
A strong November push was ahead. Cal’s season was the reverse of Washington’s—the Golden Bears did well in non-conference play and were still ranked #17 as a result. But Moon and the offense dropped 50 points and walked out Berkely with a 19-point win. Cal ended up sub-.500 in conference games.
At 4-1 in the conference, Washington was, quite improbably, in the hunt for the Rose Bowl with two games left. USC was coming to Seattle. The Trojans were the league’s perennial power and had been ranked #1 earlier in the season. But they were also fading. Even with the league’s top rusher, Charles White, that fade continued. Washington won 28-10.
That win finally got the Huskies ranked, at #19. They were tied for first in the Pac-8 but needed help. UCLA needed to lose to USC. In fact, Washington’s season finale didn’t matter at all for the Rose Bowl. If the Bruins lost, the Huskies would go to Pasadena.
Even so, this was still the Apple Cup rivalry game with Washington State and their own future NFL quarterback in Jack Thompson. Washington won it 35-15. They had to wait a week to find out their fate. But when they watched UCLA lose to USC, the Huskies were going to the Rose Bowl and their own victory meant they were outright conference champs.
The opponent was mighty Michigan, coming in at 10-1 and ranked #4 in the country. When top-ranked Texas lost the Cotton Bowl early in the day, the Wolverines were one of several one-loss teams that had a chance to stake a claim. But Moon and the Huskies got in the way.
Washington dominated the game for three quarters. Moon hit Gaines on a 28-yard touchdown pass. The defense stuffed Michigan on a 4th-and-1 from the three-yard line. To the astonishment of the national TV audience, the Huskies led 27-7 in the fourth quarter.
Michigan came roaring back, cutting the lead to 27-20 and then driving to the Washington 8-yard line with less than three minutes to play. It was Jackson who made the play of the game. A short pass to tailback Stanley Edwards resulted in Jackson simply wrestling the football away. A last-gasp Wolverine drive after that was ended by a Glasgow interception. Washington held on to win 27-20.
The surprise run through the conference and then the Rose Bowl itself, was a preview of things to come. Moon, after having to spend six years in the Canadian Football League, almost certainly due to the prejudice against black quarterbacks, eventually became one of the NFL’s signature QBs.
And the Washington program was just getting started. While USC returned to its dominating ways, the Huskies would get back to the Rose Bowl in both 1980 and 1981. They finished #2 in the country in 1984. From 1990-92, they won three straight conference titles and took home a national championship in 1991. The success of the Don James era really got started with this 1977 season.