SEATTLE — The message Nebraska delivered Saturday afternoon against Washington made up in substance what it lacked in subtlety.
The Huskers smashed any doubts about their ability to be a major player in this season's national-championship chase with a 27-14 victory that left the country's second- and third-ranked team battered, bruised and bewildered.
"We knew what they were going to do," Washington linebacker Jason Chorak said. "We just couldn't stop it."
Except for a couple of new wrinkles that sprung quarterback Scott Frost for a pair of touchdowns, Nebraska did not stray far from the formula that has produced victories in 50 of its past 53 games. The sixth- and seventh-ranked Huskers buried Washington with a running attack that produced 384 yards against a team that entered the game leading the nation in stopping the run. Only Notre Dame, with 397 yards a year ago, has run for more yards against a Husky defense.
Fullback Joel Makovicka established a career high by gaining 129 yards on 12 carries, an average of 10.8 yards per attempt. His total matched that of I-back Ahman Green, who tied his career high with 29 carries. Frost, with 97 yards, would have given the Huskers three 100-yard rushers in the same game for only the second time in school history had he not taken 6 yards in losses while kneeling down to run out the clock at the end of the game.
Defensively, Nebraska shut down Washington's ground game, knocked highly regarded quarterback Brock Huard out of the game and came up with enough big plays to offset dangerous Husky receiver Jerome Pathon.
"We hadn't play very well in our first couple of games," Nebraska rush end Grant Wistrom said. "But we came out and played well in the big game, and that's all that matters."
What perhaps matters most is that the victory, which came in front of a Husky Stadium crowd of 74,023 and an ABC regional television audience, allowed the Huskers to recapture the essence that defined their back-to-back national championship teams of 1994 and 1995.
"This victory gives us back that confidence that we had when we pretty much dominated college football in '94 and '95, " Husker defensive tackle Jason Peter said. "We feel we can play with anybody now."
Last season's 19-0 loss at Arizona State stripped the Huskers of that feeling of near invincibility. It also had soured some fans on Frost's abilities to replace Tommie Frazier as Nebraska's quarterback. No matter what Frost did since that game, he had been unable to appease his critics, the most vocal of whom booed him during the second quarter of the Sept. 13 win over Central Florida.
Frost's performance Saturday left little to fault. The senior from Wood River, Neb., rushed for 97 yards and passed for 88. He ran for first-quarter touchdowns of 34 and 30 yards to give Nebraska a 14-0 lead. Of his eight completions in 15 attempts, two - for gains of 14 and 21 yards - came on the drive that produced Nebraska's third touchdown.
"I thought he played great football today, and he's doing as many things well as anyone we'd had," Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said. "He's an excellent runner and an excellent thrower, and he knows the offense.
"He, for some reason, has undergone quite a battering for the last year and a half. I think the problem was that we had won 26 straight games, and he happened to be the quarterback when we lost one. Scott didn't have a great game at Arizona State, but there were a lot of folks around him that didn't, either. But somehow folks just haven't gotten over that."
If his performance Saturday provided Frost with any degree of redemption or revenge, he declined to share it with those outside his inner circle of support.
"My focus is on the football team, the football game," Frost said. "I care about my teammates, they care about me and we're going to support each other. What other people are saying really doesn't matter. I think the whole team feels relieved and proud that we won this football game, and I think we'll end it."
It was Frost who started Nebraska on its way to victory by marching the Huskers to touchdowns the first two times they touched the ball. The first came shortly after Washington squandered a chance to grab the early momentum when Husky place-kicker Randy Jones ended the game's first possession by missing a 33-yard field-goal try.
"We had them right where we wanted them on our first drive, " Washington tight end Cameron Cleeland said. "We could have set the tone right away, even with three points. For our team to come out empty like that just gave us a kind of fear that we can't squander anything against these guys."
Nebraska countered by driving 80 yards on six plays. Frost scored on one of several plays the Huskers had added just for this game.
With a first down at the Washington 34, Frost faked to Makovicka, stepped behind Green's block and broke outside the left flank of the defense.
He scored untouched, racing through the end zone before stopping just short of the large group of Nebraska fans seated in the southwest corner of the end zone.
"We've been saving that play for this game," Frost said. "We knew that if we could get it past their initial surge that we'd have a big hole and probably should be able to get it into the end zone. It was a great job of play-calling and a great job by the guys up front."
Frost's second touchdown, on a quarterback draw out of shotgun formation, ended a 10-play, 56-yard drive on the Huskers' next possession. Frost eluded Sekou Wiggs' tackle attempt near the line of scrimmage, evaded two other Huskies at about the 25-yard line and raced into the end zone. The 30-yard run put Nebraska ahead 14-0 with 1:51 remaining in the opening quarter.
"We had never run a quarterback draw before," Osborne said. "It was not a big deal, but it was something that Central Florida hurt us with last week and we liked the looks of it.
"I don't want to say we pulled a fast one here. Most of the stuff that we ran was base, but we did have three or four plays that we hadn't shown before. For the most part, they worked pretty well."
Washington's next possession might have been the most important of the day, as far as the Huskies were concerned. A 33-yard kickoff return by Joe Jarzynka and Rashaan Shehee's 12-yard run - Washington's second - longest of the day - gave the Huskies a first down at the Nebraska 46.
But Huard, the nation's top-rated passer after the opening two games, suffered a sprained ankle on the next play, a screen pass to Shehee that was nullified by a holding penalty.
"I was standing there, and Wistrom came and dived at my ankles and rolled up on me," Huard said.
Huard stayed in the game for another three plays. He went to the sidelines when Washington was forced to punt and never returned.
X-rays proved negative, but the Huskies stayed with freshman Marques Tuiasosopo the rest of the way.
"I thought their other kid did a great job," Nebraska Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride said. "But losing Huard really hurt them. We've been in that position, too. A couple of years ago, we lost Frazier.
"I saw the same thing happening that happened when we lost Frazier. The other guys on the team picked it up a bit and fell in behind the new guy. That's a credit to their football team."
Frost guided Nebraska to its third score, which came on Green's 4-yard run, midway through the second quarter. The Huskers appeared ready to add to their lead late in the period, but they botched a fake field-goal attempt, as holder Ted Retzlaff was dropped for a 9-yard loss.
"We had what we wanted, and it didn't get executed," Osborne said. "One guy didn't hear what he was supposed to hear, and it was tragic. I thought we had one in the end zone, and we didn't get it."
Tuiasosopo made Nebraska pay for that mistake, driving Washington 62 yards in four plays to cut Nebraska's lead to 21-7 with 1:38 left in the half. Pathon, who finished the game with five catches for 195 yards, caught a 36-yarder from Tuiasosopo, who followed that completion with a 12-yarder to Cleeland for the score.
Tuiasosopo and Pathon again teamed up, this time on a 54-yard reception, to put Washington in position for its second touchdown in the third quarter. The quarterback's 15-yard pass to Cleeland gave the Huskies a first down at the Nebraska 1, and he finished off the 76-yard drive with a 2-yard pass to Mike Reed with 2:49 left in the quarter.
The Huskies then gambled and lost when their onside-kick attempt bounced out of bounds at the Washington 47.
"It was a chance to regain momentum," Washington Coach Jim Lambright said. "We had been waiting for the opportunity, and, in this sort of game, you take a chance for an onside kick. It's worth it."
Frost then moved the Huskers into position for a 20-yard field goal by Kris Brown, which upped Nebraska's lead to 24-14 with 12:45 remaining. Brown added a 31-yarder, with 2:25 to play, to finish the Huskies.
The final kick ended a possession that started with 8:17 left with Nebraska on its 5-yard line. Makovicka had a 43-yard run on the drive and Frost a 20-yarder. A holding call wiped out Frost's 7-yard scoring pass to tight end Vershan Jackson, and Nebraska settled for the clinching field goal three plays later.
Nebraska finished with a 384-43 edge in rushing yardage.
Washington, which had held its first two opponents to an average of minus-2.5 yards per game, surrendered an average of 5.8 yards every time Nebraska ran the ball. Meanwhile, the Huskers held Washington to an average gain of 1.5 yards on 28 running plays.
"For the most part, our game plan was to run right at them, " Makovicka said. "We wanted to be the team that was the most physical today. We knew they had a great rushing defense, and that it was going to be a test to move the ball against them. But I thought we did a fairly good job."
Having completed the non-conference portion of its schedule unbeaten for the 12th time in Osborne's 25 seasons as coach, the Huskers will take a week off before beginning Big 12 Conference play Oct. 4 at home against Kansas State.
"We put a lot of emphasis on this game, but I'm sure Coach Osborne and Coach McBride will find a way to keep us headed in the right direction," Peter said. "It's back to work on Monday."
The Huskers will return to the practice field flush with a shot of confidence. Not that they ever thought Saturday's game was in doubt.
"People were just pretty much writing us off," Peter said. "Everyone expected a Washington victory here today. But the guys on this team never doubted ourselves. We knew we could get it done."
|Yards per carry||1.5||5.8|
Nebraska is 5-4 all-time against Washington.
|Central Florida||Sept. 13|
|Kansas State||Oct. 4|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 18|
|Iowa State||Nov. 15|
|Texas A&M||Dec. 6|
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