Current players on Washington football’s roster were 10- or 11-years-old in 2009. Admittedly, many in-state Huskies were not fans of UW football in those days.
Former offensive lineman Greg Christine remembers coming off that miserable, winless 2008 season where the Huskies were firmly in the gutter.
“I remember in 2007 and 2008, I couldn’t give my four tickets away,” he said. “People just wouldn’t come … No one’s coming to the games, none of your family members or friends.”
A program with a proud tradition of several Rose Bowls that they had participated in not too long before 2009, the Huskies were greeted by a mostly empty stadium — that is, before Sept. 19, in a game against No. 3 USC at Husky Stadium.
After snapping a 15-game losing streak, the longest in conference history, to Idaho a week before, former starting right tackle Cody Habben remembers a change within the UW locker room and around the program.
“The energy was different,” he said. “It felt different, completely different.”
What exactly was different though? The Huskies had just dominated a lower-tiered program in their home stadium, which is what any Power Five conference team is supposed to do.
Oh yeah. There was this guy named Sark.
Fresh off a Rose Bowl appearance with the Trojans the year prior, former USC offensive assistant Steve Sarkisian moved on to his first head coaching gig up in Seattle, and snagged the Trojans defensive coordinator Nick Holt as well to lead the Dawgs’ defense.
Because of that connection and their knowledge of former USC head coach Pete Carroll’s system, excitement began to build the week before the game.
“We had nothing to lose, we just went in and said ‘just do your job,’” Habben said. “No one in a million years would have picked us to win that game, and we knew that.”
When Saturday finally rolled around, it looked early on like the game would go as everyone had expected.
A boxing match that went the distance
The three touchdown favorite Trojans roared out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. With a rebuilding defense that couldn’t stop the run in the opening frame and an offense that was working with a new system under Sarkisian, Carroll’s squad held the advantage.
On the UW’s first offensive play, junior quarterback Jake Locker was sacked, then fumbled, and Habben ended up with the football behind the line of scrimmage.
“I had no idea what to do with the ball,” Habben said. “I picked it up and started running and all I remember is seeing white jerseys, red helmets, and blurs… I ran for minus-1 yard so I was in the statbook, I guess.”
That was how the game started, but just before the first quarter ended, the Huskies put together a touchdown drive capped off by a Locker run right up the middle on a designed draw. After what felt like a dominant quarter of play from the Trojans, it was only a three-point game.
On the next USC possession, Mason Foster forced a fumble, the UW’s first defensive stop of the game, which they began to build a habit of for the rest of the game.
“The whole time we’d throw a punch and then they’d land one back,” Habben said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of points being scored, but I remember it was exciting to be in it, towards the end we started to feel the momentum change a little.”
Deadlocked at 10-10 at the half, the Huskies could feel a changing of attitudes and expectations as they took the field for the second half. As USC drove down the field with ease on their first possession of the half, linebacker Donald Butler forced a game-changing fumble in the red zone.
“Just the momentum, the crowd, everything, I remember that moment very distinctly,” Christine said. “He got the fumble and you could tell they were rattled, surprisingly. They were rattled.”
On USC’s next possession, backup quarterback Aaron Corp threw an interception to Butler. Corp was only playing because freshman phenom Matt Barkley had been injured the previous week when the Trojans were on the road in Columbus against Ohio State.
The teams exchanged field goals in the fourth quarter, and with 4:01 on the clock, Locker and the Huskies offense had one last chance to change the narrative about Washington’s football program.
“[The huddle] wasn’t really anything special or unique,” Christine said. “Do what you’ve done all game, just do it now. Just continue to do what you’ve been doing all game, and you’ll win.”
It didn’t get off to a great start for the Huskies and Locker, who was sacked on the very first play of the drive right up the middle. But after a short gain on second-down, Washington came up big in perhaps the biggest conversion of the game.
Locker took a snap from under center and fired a pass right over the middle to receiver Jermaine Kearse for a first down. Current UW defensive backs coach Will Harris was the one who made the tackle for the Trojans on that play.
“Once we converted that, there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to win,” Christine said. “That was typically when Washington needed to make a play in 2007 and 2008, we wouldn’t make that play. That was the moment where, third-and-forever, you have to make a play to win the game, and we actually made a play.”
After Locker found Kearse again for a first down and got roughed in the process after the throw, suddenly, the Dawgs were all the way down to the USC 8-yard-line with less than a minute to go.
Sarkisian opted to center the ball with a Chris Polk run, and then Washington trotted out placekicker Erik Folk to try and win the game in regulation. Having seen chances for big wins fall short in years past, this was a chance they knew they couldn’t slip up.
“I was more nervous about some ref calling something,” Christine said. “You obviously think about these things in retrospect, but having seen opportunities slip through our hands in years prior, you’re just like come on, don’t let this be another one of those.”
While Christine watched from the sideline, Habben was blocking on the edge in one of the tight end spots, and remembers watching the field goal sail through the uprights with two guys on top of him on the ground.
“I was lying on my back and saw the ball go through the uprights and then the stadium erupted,” Habben said. “One of my buddies helped me up, and then from there the last kickoff, and then the stadium erupting was awesome.
“There has never been a cooler moment than seeing that ball sail through the uprights. It was phenomenal.”
After Folk hit the short kick, the Huskies had three seconds on the clock to burn on the ensuing kickoff, and when the USC returner went down, chaos followed.
“I can’t even describe it. As I’m talking about it now, I’m getting chills,” Christine said. “Running on the field, I’ve never heard it louder at Husky Stadium, so many people on the field immediately after that.”
Somehow, ss tens of thousands of fans stormed the field, Habben’s father and his high school coach found him amid the mayhem.
The field was covered in purple lunatics who had hopped over a five-foot wall to mob the celebrating Huskies on the field, with bits of green visible toward the edges of the field near the track at the old stadium.
“It was a great environment,” Harris said, who said that it was a game he’d never forget as a Trojan. “It was one of the best environments I’ve ever played in and I’ve played in some really big ones like the Rose Bowl and at Ohio State. At the end of the day, I always tell people this is a special place to play.”
While Harris could only hope to avoid all the purple-clad fans swarming the field, Habben and Christine absorbed everything they could from the victory. And still today, when people talk about the resurgence of the UW football program, there will be some that said it started that dreary day in late September where the underdog Huskies took down the powerhouse Trojans, who were just one year removed from a Rose Bowl.
“That was by far the most exciting piece of everything,” Christine said. “Finally people being excited about Washington football, once again.”
Reach Sports Editor Alec Dietz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AlecDietz
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