Big-time college football games don’t pull up to the Montlake shores very often.
In fact, Friday’s long-anticipated battle between No. 10 Washington and No. 7 Stanford is just the fourth meeting at Husky Stadium between teams ranked among the top 10 in the Associated Press poll.
The last time it happened, No. 7 Nebraska ran over No. 2 Washington during a 27-14 trouncing on Sept. 20, 1997 that launched the Cornhuskers’ bid for a share of the national championship and spoiled UW’s chance at a title.
Nearly two decades later, the sting from that defeat hasn’t subsided.
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“What I remember specifically is the hit that Brock (Huard) took early in that game that knocked him out and then all of sudden we’re standing around and looking at each other saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we just lost our starting quarterback,’ “ former Husky tight end Cam Cleeland said. “In comes a true freshman, Marques Tuiasosopo. And when I say a true freshman, I mean wet-behind-the-ears freshman.”
In hindsight, Tuiasosopo (270 passing yards and two touchdowns) didn’t lose the game for the Huskies. He proved to be one of the few bright spots for UW along with receiver Jerome Pathon (5 catches for 195 yards), while the offense accumulated just 43 rushing yards.
Washington’s inability to slow down a Nebraska rushing attack that churned out 384 yards on the ground proved to be the difference. Cornhuskers running back Ahman Green, the former Seahawk, and fullback Joel Makovicka each amassed 129 yards and quarterback Scott Frost added 97 yards rushing.
The Huskies went 6-3 the rest of the season, including a blowout win over Michigan State in the Aloha Bowl.
Cleeland doesn’t necessarily blame the humbling Nebraska defeat as the reason why Washington stumbled to an 8-4 record and finished the season ranked 18th in the final AP poll.
Still, he believes football teams are pushed to greatness or succumb to mediocrity under adverse conditions against equally strong opponents. And the Cornhuskers exposed serious flaws in a 2-0 UW team that had hopes of a national title.
“There was a lot of expectations around that (1997) team,” he said. “We were preseason No. 1 or 2 (actually, UW was fourth) and that was the matchup with Nebraska was supposed to be deciding the title that year. And we knew it.
“We knew how important it was. And how big it was. You hate to live with what ifs, but it was one of those what-if games. What if we had beaten Nebraska? Maybe we’re talking about a ’97 team that wins a national championship.”
Washington is 1-1-1 in top-10 ranked matchups at Husky Stadium, including a 10-7 win over No. 9 UCLA in 1982 and a 7-7 tie with No. 7 Purdue in 1962. Both times UW was ranked 10th.
The Huskies were also ranked 10th in 2001 when they lost 35-13 at No. 7 UCLA – the last time UW played in a game featuring two top-10 ranked teams.
All told, Washington is 8-7-1 in top-10 ranked matchups, including 4-2 in bowl games.
“There’s a uniqueness to those games and you put them in their own special little category,” said former Husky quarterback Hugh Millen, who led No. 4 Washington to a 28-17 upset win over No. 2 Oklahoma in the 1985 Orange Bowl. “You talk to any football player who’s done with the sport ... when they look back over their careers there’s only a handful of games that truly stick out.
“Big games stick out. The bigger the better. ... I guarantee you, each and everyone one of those guys who gets out on that field Friday night will never forget it. You never want to put too much on one game, but depending on how things turn out, this game may go down as one of most important in the history of the program.”
At the very least, the winner of Friday’s battle of unbeatens takes control of the Pac-12 North Division and remains in contention for one of four berths into the College Football Playoff. Washington (4-0) and Stanford (3-0) are each riding seven-game winning streaks, fourth longest among Division I FBS teams.
Stanford and the Pac-12 lobbied for Friday’s 6 p.m. kickoff on ESPN rather than a later start to allow more exposure for Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman Trophy runner-up last year.
Despite what’s expected to be traffic issues in the Montlake area, Washington officials are expecting its first Husky Stadium sellout since its renovation in 2013.
“It’s going to be a lot of energy in this place,” junior linebacker Kieshawn Bierria said. “I kind of have an idea about it, but I’m definitely going to be surprised when I come out here to see how packed the stands are and how loud it’s going to get. It’s going to be an amazing place to play in.
“I’ve been in some pretty big games ... but I don’t think the stakes have ever been this big for us.”
Stanford has vastly more recent experience in big games. Since taking over in 2011, coach David Shaw who is 2-3 in games between top-10 ranked teams, including a 45-16 win over No. 6 Iowa in last season’s Rose Bowl when the Cardinal finished third in the final AP poll.
How the Huskies manage their preparations and emotions will go a long way in determining how they perform Friday.
“I pray a lot,” junior receiver Dante Pettis said. “It calms me down. Take a few deep breaths. Say a quick prayer and let whatever happens at that moment happen. I give it up to God. And from that moment on it’s let’s go play.”
Petersen and the UW staff preaches a no-game-is-bigger-than-the-rest philosophy that’s going to get tested this week.
“These guys are going to sit back and try to think that it’s just another game, but it’s not,” Cleeland said. “You win these games, they bring you back 20 years later and you’re being celebrated at halftime. You lose them and you’re living with that disappointment for a long time.”
Battles of the stars
The Huskies are 8-7-1 in battles of top-10 football teams.
Matchups at Husky Stadium (1-1-1)
No. 2 UW 14, No. 7 Nebraska 27
No. 10 UW 10, No. 9 UCLA 7
No. 10 UW 7, No. 7 Purdue 7
Matchups on road, non-bowl games (3-4)
No. 10 UW 13, No. 7 UCLA 35
No. 8 UW 7, No. 2 Nebraska 55
No. 3 UW 24, No. 7 Cal 17
No. 4 UW 36, No. 9 Nebraska 21
No. 6 UW 21, No. 7 ASU 34
No. 7 UW 17, No. 3 ASU 13
No. 9 UW 0, No. 3 USC 14
Bowl games (4-2)
No. 9 UW 31, No. 7 Michigan 38 (Rose Bowl)
No. 2 UW 34, No. 4 Michigan 14 (Rose Bowl)
No. 4 UW 28, No. 2 Oklahoma 17 (Orange Bowl)
No. 6 UW 17, No. 1 Minnesota 7 (Rose Bowl)
No. 8 UW 44, No. 6 Wisconsin 8 (Rose Bowl)
No. 5 UW 0, No. 3 Pitt 21 (Rose Bowl)