As they left the field Saturday night, a 36-21 victory over Nebraska theirs to savor, Washington's players glanced toward the Memorial Stadium seats and saw the unthinkable. Assembled in front of them were thousands of applauding Cornhusker fans.
It wasn't polite, obligatory applause. Instead, it was heartfelt, as if they had seen something special, perhaps witnessed greatness.
And so they clapped their hands and cheered. And for those Nebraska fans who could reach over the railing, they even traded high-fives with stunned Washington players. If nothing else, the Cornhusker followers know how to lose with grace.
And the Huskies? Before a national television audience and the 76,304 at Memorial Stadium, No. 4-ranked Washington proved it knew how to win under almost any circumstance.
"I think we just showed how good we are," Husky center Ed Cunningham said. "Those people know football. They respected us for it."
They weren't the only ones. The Cornhuskers themselves could only issue compliments after the game. After all, Nebraska led, 21-9, late in the third quarter, only to see Washington score 27 consecutive points.
"Their offense is good, but their defense is superlative," said Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, who no doubt will be criticized by the locals for not winning another so-called big game. "There will probably be a lot of pretty good teams that won't come as close as we did tonight."
And this, from Nebraska linebacker Mike Anderson: "It seemed like toward the fourth quarter the momentum started to change. Then our offense couldn't move the ball and everything seemed to crumble."
Nebraska, ranked ninth, entered the game as the nation's No. 1 team in rushing, in total offense and in scoring offense. The Cornhuskers didn't leave it that way.
Washington held Nebraska to 15 first downs, compared to the 31 the Huskies earned. Washington gave up 199 total yards in the first half, 109 in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Huskies were piling up yardage. Washington had 618 total yards, 283 on quarterback Billy Joe Hobert's right arm, and another 139 on the running of Beano Bryant. Tailback Jay Barry added 110 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown run.
And remember, Hobert was Washington's reserve quarterback until Mark Brunell suffered a knee injury during spring practice. Hobert is becoming something of a Husky legend.
"I'm not trying to sound cocky," Hobert said, "but I was telling them, 'Don't worry, guys, it's in the bag.' "
As for the greeting he and his teammates received from the Nebraska faithful, Hobert was no less diplomatic.
"If I was fan . . . I would have applauded," he said. "It was a hell of a game."
An added subplot was the Cornhusker record against ranked teams. Against its last five opponents who were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, Osborne's teams were 0-5, with the average margin of defeat an unsettling 18 points.
Determined to reverse the trend, Osborne tried something different. For a while, it worked.
Of course, Nebraska's new approach shouldn't have come as a complete surprise. As early as last spring, Osborne promised to insert an actual pass play or two into future Cornhusker game plans. This being Nebraska, home of the off-tackle play, nobody believed him.
But Osborne didn't stop there. As game day approached, the usually mild-mannered coach turned a bit combative. He suggested that if Cornhusker followers were displeased with his record against big-name opponents, they should go find someone else to do the job. Stunned Cornhusker critics quickly bit their tongues.
He publicly chided the 76,304 Nebraska fans who assemble regularly at Memorial Stadium, all but accusing them of sitting on their hands. He then asked that those same fans try something different, such as make noise.
And as an added bonus to the week's events, Osborne nearly popped a neck vein when a Sports Illustrated reporter requested an interview. So upset was Osborne--he has had a long-running feud with the magazine--that he almost used a naughty word when rejecting the interview.
And wouldn't you know it, Osborne was right: the Cornhuskers discovered the forward pass, relatively speaking. Nebraska actually threw 29 passes. Twelve of the attempts were caught for 173 yards and one touchdown.
Nebraska historians will note that the first Cornhusker score of the evening was set up by a pass--a 22-yard completion from quarterback Keithen McCant to wide receiver Tyrone Hughes that moved the ball to the Washington 27. Of course, Osborne wasn't about to go crazy with air travel. On the next play, running back Derek Brown, a Servite High alumnus, took a pass from McCant and went into the end zone with 8:41 remaining in the first quarter.
The score remained 7-0 until the second quarter, when the Huskies took the ball on their two-yard line and didn't stop until they reached the Nebraska end zone with 9:07 left in the half on a nine-yard quarterback draw by Hobert. A high snap on the point-after attempt cost Washington the early tie.
Meanwhile, Nebraska's offense struggled, so much so that Osborne replaced McCant with former starter Mickey Joseph. The substitution lasted a series and good thing, too, because McCant returned and connected on a 42-yard touchdown pass play to Bostick with 3:40 left in the quarter and Nebraska led, 14-6.
Washington cut the deficit to 14-9 on a 43-yard field goal by Travis Hanson early in the third quarter. But the Cornhuskers responded with a two-yard touchdown run by Brown.
The touchdown was made possible by Bryant's fumbled punt. Television replays seemed to indicate that Bryant might have already fallen on the bobbled ball, but the officials didn't agree. A few moments later, Nebraska had a 21-9 lead with 5:32 left in the period.
The Huskies took the kickoff and drove 76 yards for a touchdown, despite facing a fourth-and-eight at the Nebraska 30-yard line. Hobert completed a 15-yard pass and one play later, Bryant ran the remaining 15 yards for the score to make it 21-16 with 19 seconds left in the quarter.
With 11:20 left in the game, Washington struck again when Hobert found Orlando McKay for an eight-yard scoring pass. The Huskies missed the two-point attempt, but had the lead, 22-21.
They added to it when Hobert scored from three yards out with 7:26 left to play, after McCant's fumble, for a 29-21 lead.
Shortly after that, Barry got his 81-yard scoring run.
The Huskies (2-0) have rarely looked better. So moved were some of the Huskies, that Washington assistant coach Matt Simon actually wept as he left the field.
"This keeps us in the national race," Hobert said. "That was our goal coming into the season."
It was Nebraska's goal, too. But on night when good intentions counted for little, the Cornhuskers (2-1) could do little more than admire Washington.