Sept. 16, 2006
SEATTLE (AP) - They pumped their gold helmets toward their student section. Each thrust matched the pulse of rare, Washington Husky postgame roars.
Sure, it was an impromptu celebration of a second Washington win in three games, Saturday's 21-20 escape from Fresno State that came thanks to a blocked extra point by third-string defensive end Caesar Rayford with 4:30 minutes remaining.
Yes, those victories are over San Jose State and mistake-plagued Fresno State, members of Western Athletic Conference -- the Pac-10's supposed regional stepbrothers. Those have been sandwiched around a second half collapse at Oklahoma.
Whatever. The team with just three wins in 22 games entering this season will gladly take its start since 2003 -- its last non-losing season.
"Put it like this: Last year, we were 2-9. We're already 2-1," beaming safety C.J. Wallace said after his game-high 17 tackles -- many against bruising Bulldog Dwayne Wright.
Wright ran through an unofficial count of 18 Husky tackles en route to 136 yards on 27 carries for Fresno State (1-2). The nation's third-leading rusher coming in now has 448 yards this season, the highest total through three games in Fresno State history.
"We feel like we aren't even playing our best football," Wallace said, using the sloppy tackling of Wright as an example. "We feel the sky's the limit for us."
Or, as coach Tyrone Willingham said of this mini-turnaround in his second Washington season, "It validates every ounce of sweat we've had."
The Huskies were sweating again after Wright's second rushing touchdown, a 1-yard reach across the goal line, was about to forge a third tie late. But Kenny Amendola's low snap and a problematic hold led to Rayford blocking Clint Stitser's PAT with his right hand to keep Washington ahead by a point.
Defensive coordinator Kent Baer added the 6-foot-7 Rayford to the kick-block unit on Monday.
"It was wild, man. I don't think I jumped at all. I just stretched out," Rayford said.
The Bulldogs got the ball back a final time after Rayford's block. But Washington's Mesphin Forrester intercepted Tom Brandstater's pass and returned it to the Fresno State 1 with just over a minute left.
Two kneeldowns sent Washington (2-1) into next week's Pac-10 opener against UCLA feeling renewed. And Bulldogs coach Pat Hill feeling irate.
His Bulldogs, known for their special teams play, had problems all over its kicking game in its response to a narrow home loss to No. 18 Oregon last week -- including Stitser missing badly on an earlier, 41-yard field goal attempt.
Hill's postgame rant to his players resonated through the locker room walls.
"That's not acceptable for Fresno State football," a still-seething Hill said later of a team that has appeared in seven consecutive bowl games. "Guys weren't ready, weren't getting it done. And I take full responsibility for that.
"And it will change. I'll tell you what, it's going to get physical (in practice) next week ... we'll find some new players, if we have to."
Washington took a 21-14 lead five minutes into the final quarter on Isaiah Stanback's second touchdown pass. Sonny Shackleford made a leaping catch while grabbing an 8-yard throw off the arm of Bulldogs safety Vincent Mays.
Fresno State had evened the game at 14 just three plays into the third quarter. Brandstater perfectly placed a soft pass onto the hands of Paul Williams, who was banging shoulders with Washington's Matt Fountaine. Williams dragged Fountaine the final 5 yards of a 38-yard touchdown pass.
Williams is the younger brother of Curtis Williams, a former Washington defensive back who six years ago suffered a paralyzing neck injury against Stanford. Williams ultimately died from complications due to the paralysis. Washington has Curtis Williams' jersey number 25 painted on the sidelines at Husky Stadium -- his younger brother ran by it on his touchdown route.
The entire Williams family attended the game, in which Paul caught six passes for 85 yards against coverage designed in part by a third Williams brother. J.D. Williams is in his first season as the Huskies' defensive back coach.
Stanback gave Washington a 14-7 lead late in the first half. His zigzagging 36-yard scramble set up his 6-yard sprint into the end zone on a quarterback draw. Willingham had extended that drive by going for a fourth-and-1 at his own 49. Stanback converted that with a 2-yard sneak, part of his 91-yard rushing day.
Wright rolled for 82 yards in the first half through Washington's flailing defenders. Wright had 43 yards on the game's opening drive. That ended with his fifth touchdown run of the season, a 1-yard dive.
Washington answered with the first of its two, 13-play touchdown drives of the opening half. Stanback converted a third-and-20 with a 38-yard completion to Marcel Reece to the Bulldogs' 16. He then scrambled and Johnie Kirton open in the back of the end zone from 5 yards out.