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September 17, 2006With 1:09 left on the game clock, Washington quarterback Isaiah Stanback took the snap from center Juan Garcia and kneeled down on the field turf of Husky Stadium. In the boxscore it marks a team rush loss of three yards, but in the hearts and minds of the UW football squad it is marked as something else entirely.
"That's the best play we have in our playbook," Stanback said of the kneel.
They run through the play every week during walkthroughs, but the last two seasons they have not been in the position to put it into use very often. But in a 21-20 victory over Fresno State, the quarterback kneel marked a successful first quarter of the Husky football season.
Even though Washington was held to a season-low 128 yards on the ground, it powered through that adversity to improve its record to 2-1 for the first time since 2003 thanks to secondary play that was greatly improved over the first two games of the season.
"It's the next best thing to being 3-0," coach Tyrone Willingham said of moving to 2-1. "It means the work that our guys have been putting in has paid off so far."
The afternoon began with the ball in the hands of the Fresno State offense, and as it drove down the field in a seemingly unstoppable manner to put the first seven points of the game on the board, it looked like it was going to be another long day for the Huskies.
But instead of wilting under the pressure of a strong Bulldog offense, Washington responded on defense. Willingham said that there was only one thing to blame for the easy drive to start the game.
"Tackling," he said. "One thing I told them was to execute and tackle."
And a secondary that had watched a pair of quarterbacks who had expected to come into the season as backups throw for career days the last two weeks, tightened up and forced the Bulldogs to earn their yards. On the day, Fresno State quarterback Tom Brandstater threw for just 140 yards and one touchdown.
It was far cry from their performance against Oklahoma.
"I don't even know the difference, we just came out today focused and won the game," safety Mesphin Forrester said of the secondary's performance.
On the ground though, Bulldog tailback Dwayne Wright - who entered the game as the No. 3 rusher in the country - racked up a total of 142 yards and found his way to the endzone two times before the day was over.
After going three-and-out on their first offensive possession, the Huskies responded to Fresno State's opening drive touchdown with seven points of their own when Stanback connected with tight end Johnie Kirton in the endzone.
Stanback finished the day with 151 yards through the air on 15-of-26 passing. His numbers might have been higher and more points may have been put on the scoreboard for the UW if not for the shaky hands of the wide receivers. The receivers dropped several passes on the day, including four to bring up fourth down.
"Usually when a receiver drops the ball, he's trying to finish the play before he gets the ball," Willingham said. "We had guys trying to make plays before they had control of the ball and that resulted in a drop."
Even though he had a drop of his own, Washington got a big-time performance from a guy whose arrival Husky fans had been patiently awaiting. Junior college transfer Marcel Reece caught the ball three times for 62 yards, including a long play of 38.
"It was a good day, but I still haven't had my coming out game," he said. "I just feel I could be an even bigger impact on this offense, and I'm getting closer and closer everyday. I can't wait to show all Husky fans what it's all about."
While Stanback was efficient through the air, he used what most people consider to be his greatest strength to win the game: his legs. With the scored tied at seven, the Huskies used a 36-yard effort on the ground by Stanback, that included four changes of direction to get the ball into the redzone.
"It was a pass play, and I just stepped up and tried to make something happen," he said.
The play led to another Stanback rush, this time for six yards and a touchdown to but the Huskies up 14-7. After Fresno State missed a field goal on the next possession, Washington took that lead into halftime for the second time this season.
However, the second half opened up as slowly as the game did. After going three-and-out on its first possession, the Bulldogs went on a 3 play 51 yard drive to knot the game back up at 14.
One more time, though, the Huskies bolted down and closed up on defense.
"All the way around this is a different team from last year," Kenny James said. "We know how to win now. We faced adversity, but we stepped up and made plays and we came off the field with a victory."
Washington had one more scoring drive left in it during the fourth quarter, as Stanback hooked up with senior Sonny Shackelford with ten minutes remaining for an eight yard touchdown and the final lead of the ballgame.
It was Shackelford's second touchdown catch of the season, and his third reception of the game.
"It was a play call where [Stanback] could have thrown it to the corner or to the spot where Anthony Russo was at, but he saw an open man, and he threw it in there," Shackelford said. "I always tell him that if he throws it up there, that I will do my best to go and get it. And I got it."
While the pass to Shackelford would end up as the winning touchdown, the game was far from over for the Huskies. Fresno State mounted one more drive of its own, and with 4:36 left on the game clock, Wright found his way into the endzone for the second time in the contest.
It looked like another fourth quarter collapse.
But as the Bulldogs kicked the extra point to tie the game up at 21, something happened. Caesar Rayford jumped over the line and extended his six-foot-eight frame in an attempt to block it.
The ball hit him squarely in the palm of his left hand, and the Huskies held onto a one point game.
"I knew it hit me, and when I noticed my teammates and the crowd I was like 'wow I think I just blocked this kick,'" Rayford said. "I was thinking to myself 'we're going to win this game.'"
It was one of the only plays of the game for Rayford, whose arms are so long he has to custom order his clothes, but it was a big one.
After the Huskies failed to run out the clock on their next possession, they used the strength of a loud Husky Stadium crowd and a Mesphin Forrester interception to seal the win.
"The fans came through today with the noise, and pumped us up," Forrester said. "That was pretty loud, and hearing that noise gets you amped up and ready to make plays."
While Forrester's interception return came up just one yard shy of a touchdown, the Huskies came one point ahead in their only goal of the game: winning.