John McGrath

John McGrath: Can Dawgs run with big dogs of football?

Coach Chris Petersen of University of Washington runs off the field at halftime in the season opening football game at Husky Stadium in Seattle, September 3, 2016. UW beat Rutgers, 48-13.
Coach Chris Petersen of University of Washington runs off the field at halftime in the season opening football game at Husky Stadium in Seattle, September 3, 2016. UW beat Rutgers, 48-13. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Two teams will collide Friday night at Husky Stadium in a game that has the potential to be talked about years after we’re no longer talking.

Washington is ranked No. 10. Stanford is ranked No. 7. Memories will be made, and not just because of the insane idea to schedule the kickoff during the busiest rush hour of the week.

It’s been 19 years since a pair of Top 10 teams played in Seattle. In terms of, say, geological eras, 19 years is the equivalent of a finger snap. But within the ever-evolving cycle of the local sports scene, 19 years is as long ago as Bogie and Bacall.

When No. 7 Nebraska visited No. 2 Washington on Sept. 20, 1997, the Seahawks were close to irrelevant. Attendance for their game on the following afternoon in the 66,000-seat Kingdome would be announced at 51,110.

The season-ticket waiting list had vaporized, and not just because the NFL team wasn’t particularly interesting. Competition for attention was fierce.

The Mariners were headed to the playoffs behind ’97 American League MVP Ken Griffey Jr. Surrounding Griffey was an All-Star supporting cast — Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Alex Rodriguez — performing at its peak.

The SuperSonics, opening training camp as strong favorites to win their second NBA Western Conference championship in three years, were about to make every home game at the refurbished KeyArena a must-see event.

And then there were the Huskies. Installed at No. 4 in The Associated Press’ preseason poll, Jim Lambright’s team had climbed to second before the Cornhuskers rolled into Husky Stadium.

Some mental snapshots linger. It was a Saturday afternoon — once upon a time, Saturday afternoons were synonymous with college football — and the stadium’s atmosphere on the clear, sunny day contained enough electricity to produce a lightning bolt.

Nebraska was the real deal — it would finish 13-0 in Tom Osborne’s final season as head coach — and jumped to a 14-0 lead before the Huskies were able to gather themselves from the early adrenaline rush. (The same adrenaline rush, by the way, that Chris Petersen will be challenged to stem Friday night.)

When UW quarterback Brock Huard limped off the field toward the end of the first quarter, it had the effect of a pin popping a balloon. Oh, no. Whatever could go wrong had gone wrong.

Enter Marques Tuiasasopo, a true freshman nine days removed from walking into his first college classroom. Tuiasasopo delivered deep throws with accuracy, and though the Huskies lost the game, 24-14, the kid’s remarkable poise saved the day, if not the season.

Washington finished 8-4, a respectable record for any team that’s not ranked No. 2 on Sept. 20. A thorough Aloha Bowl beating of Michigan State, coached by the dour no-name now known as Nick Saban, gave reason for optimism in 1998.

But the Huskies regressed to 6-6 and Lambright was fired, putting everything in place for 15 years of Montlake melodrama. Lambright’s successor, Rick Neuheisel, won both a Rose Bowl and a $4.5 million settlement against the NCAA and UW for unlawful termination of his contract.

Keith Gilbertson didn’t win much of anything, nor did Tyrone Willingham, and when USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was identified as the fresh young prince capable of galvanizing fallen-away fans, the introduction — replete with a band on hand and cheerleaders — it had the feel of a pep rally.

You know how that went.

So here we are, 19 years later. The Mariners keep hanging in a wild-card race that has the look of the last lap at Talladega, three cars in front of them and no room to pass. The Sonics are gone. The Seahawks rule.

And the Huskies? If they survive Stanford, they’ll put themselves into the discussion about all the possibilities awaiting a 5-0 team that competes in a power conference.

Petersen won’t acknowledge a shot at a national championship is at stake Friday — smart cookies don’t dare to dream in public — but I guarantee you, he’s all in on the dream.

Friday night lights weren’t meant for college football, but the schedule is what it is: Time for the Huskies to step up and reclaim their status as a team so good that the pregame traffic jam will be recalled as a parade.

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