Don James had already enjoyed a successful coaching run at the University of Washington. He went to the Rose Bowl in 1977, 1980 and 1981, winning it twice. He won the Orange Bowl in 1984 and finished #2 in the country. But the latter part of the 1980s saw the Huskies slip a bit, with four minor bowl bids in a five-year period and only two Top 25 finishes. The 1990 Washington Huskies jumped back up into the national elite and began a three-year run of excellence to cap James’ career.
Mark Brunnell had a long, successful NFL career ahead of him. As a college junior he was on the erratic side. While a 47% completion rate isn’t unspeakably bad, the way it would be today, it was still low. And Brunnell’s 6.8 yards-per-attempt was pedestrian.
But the lefty QB could run and his 444 rush yards were second on the team. And running was what Washington did exceptionally well. Greg Lewis rolled up nearly 1,300 yards. He caught 20 balls out of the backfield and his 17.3 yards-per-catch would have been great for a receiver. It was astonishing for a running back. Lewis won Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Beno Bryant was a nice change of pace back that averaged almost six yards a pop and was an outstanding kick returner. Mario Bailey was the top target in the passing game, catching 40 balls for nearly 17 yards a catch. Jeff Pahukoa was the best offensive lineman, making All-Conference at guard. Washington finished the season at seventh in the nation in points scored.
The defense was on the same level, ranking eighth nationally. The Huskie D also had the Conference Player of the Year, in this case, future #1 NFL draft pick Steve Emtman on the defensive line. Travis Richardson was another All Pac-10 performer up front. Donald Jones was steady at linebacker and James had an outstanding secondary, anchored by future pros in Charles Mincy and Dana Hall.
Washington was ranked #20 to start the season and didn’t look overly impressive coming out of the gate. They beat San Jose State 20-17. Even allowing this was a good San Jose team that won the Big West, there’s nothing in that result that shouts “national contender.” The same went for a 20-14 escape at lowly Purdue.
USC had gone to the Rose Bowl three years running and they came to Seattle on September 22 ranked #5 in the country. On a hot 92-degree afternoon, this 1990 Washington team came into its own.
Lewis ran for 126 yards. Brunnell went 12/23 for 197 yards. And the defense simply suffocated the Trojans, holding SC to 28 rushing yards. The result was a 31-0 thumping that moved the Huskies up to #2 in the polls. .
There was no time to celebrate, because a trip to play Colorado was up next. The Buffaloes were ranked #20 coming in after a couple early stumbles, but they ended up winning a share of the national championship. The reason is that, in a terrific game, Washington was stopped twice in the red zone in the fourth quarter of a 20-14 loss.
The Huskies regrouped to move back into conference play. They hammered a poor Arizona State team 42-14. Washington hosted a pretty good Oregon team that would win eight regular season games and had Bill Musgrave at quarterback. The Huskies coasted to a 38-17 win.
A trip to Stanford was up next. The Cardinal were coached by future NFL boss Dennis Green and quarterback Jason Palumbis ended up leading the Pac-10 in passing efficiency. Even though Stanford had a mediocre season they had already upset #1 Notre Dame in South Bend. No one knew quite what to expect from the Cardinal.
What happened is that Washington delivered a 52-16 beatdown. They hosted a respectable Cal team and rolled to a 46-7 win. The Huskies were in the top 10. There were three conference games left. The Rose Bowl, and even the national title were in sight.
Arizona was ranked #23 and came north on the first weekend of November. Lewis ran for 103 yards. Bryant returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown and also took off on a 73-yard TD run. Washington cruised home 54-10 and events elsewhere in the conference locked up the Rose Bowl bid.
The Huskies were #2 in the country and hosting mediocre UCLA. But on a dark and windy day in Seattle, Washington’s national championship hopes took a dark turn. A late field goal handed them a 25-22 loss.
There was still the Apple Cup rivalry game with Washington State. The Cougars weren’t very good and it showed. Washington rolled to a 55-10 win. They were #8 in the country as they headed for Pasadena.
Iowa was the opponent in the Rose Bowl and it simply wasn’t close. Brunnell ran for two touchdowns, passed for two more and the Huskies led 33-7 by halftime. The final score ended at 46-34, but don’t be deceived—there was never the remotest chance Iowa was going to win.
Washington closed the season ranked #5 in the country. And things would only get better. This was the first of three straight Rose Bowl seasons for James to send him off into retirement. And the middle year, of 1991, saw the Huskies share the national championship.