At the conclusion of the 2008 season, Washington football had never been lower. The Huskies had just finished as the Pac-10’s only team to ever go 0-12. Former coach Tyrone Willingham exited with a dreadful 11-37 record, and Washington now had a string of five consecutive losing seasons.
Many Husky players had come to loathe practice and the game of football itself. Given the fact Washington hadn’t had a losing season from 1977-2003, its newfound futility was incomprehensible.
One former Husky said, “Just watching them on TV it was like there was no fight in them. It was almost like they didn’t care if they won or lost. Many times I had to shut the TV off during the game, I just couldn’t take it.”
In late 2008, when word spread that Washington just hired USC coordinator Steve Sarkisian as its new head coach, UW fullback Paul Homer scratched his head.
“We were surprised that a USC coach would be considered,” Homer said. “It seemed weird, but I was also excited since they had been so successful. When I watched his first press conference, he seemed a little goofy. I thought to myself: What are we doing?
“But in the first team meeting he laid down the law and said we’re no longer playing like garbage,” Homer said. “He was full of positive energy and excitement. They said if we bought in they would take us to the very top. That got everybody fired up.”
Nine months later, the Huskies opened the 2009 season by losing to LSU at home before bouncing back to beat Idaho 42-23. The win snapped a Pac-10-record 15-game losing streak. The players viewed the win as cathartic, but there wasn’t much time to bask in the afterglow.
The third-ranked USC Trojans were coming to town, led by legendary coach Pete Carroll. USC had just beaten Ohio State in Columbus the week before and had won seven straight Pac-10 titles. The team from LA served as the beacon powerhouse of West Coast football.
As the Huskies prepared for battle, the primary component was psychological. The year before, they’d been destroyed by USC 56-0 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. USC players had taunted them all game long, and Washington offered no resistance, in part due to former Coach Willingham’s rule against profanity.
But many UW players also simply quit. The wounds ran deep on that day for Paul Homer.
“My goal was no longer focused on winning,” he said. “I was focused on showing that I was a man and that I was one of the Huskies that still had some dignity. I saw guys quitting. I have played sports my whole life, baseball, football, basketball and soccer. I’ve seen bad players and I’ve been on bad teams in my life. But I’ve never seen guys just quit. That was tough to see so many guys quit. It hurt me a lot. It hurt a lot of guys on the team. It will take me a long time to forgive some of those guys.”
But now it was a year later, and scant days before the mighty Trojans were to enter Husky Stadium. UW running back coach Joel Thomas approached Homer.
“He told me I was going against the USC linebackers and wanted to know how I felt about that,” Homer said. “I told him that I thought I could handle them. He looked at me and said, 'I know you can.' That was the thing, with Coach Sarkisian and the staff, they were instilling in us a sense of certainty.”
As the two teams took the field, it looked like a continuation of the previous year's LA Coliseum massacre. USC’s first two drives of the game netted 111 yards rushing and yielded a 10-0 lead. Star running back Joe McKnight plunged through gaping holes in the line, and Trojan superiority was on full display for the world to see.
But something happened on the Husky sideline. A few tweaks of strategy, but mainly psychological reinforcement. The UW coaches relentlessly stressed keeping the faith. Defensive coordinator Nick Holt, in particular, was going ballistic in urging the players not to give in.
The Huskies began engaging the Trojans in a low-scoring slugfest. UW quarterback Jake Locker scored on a four-yard run late in the first quarter to cut the deficit to 10-7. Placekicker Erik Folk added a field goal in the second quarter to knot the game at 10-10. The Husky defense came up big by forcing multiple turnovers from USC’s freshman quarterback Aaron Corp. The Husky Stadium crowd generated increasing intensity as the game progressed toward its final stanzas.
Tension was certainly building in the trenches. On one play, Homer was split wide to the left, and the Huskies ran up the middle for a few yards. Homer raced toward the pile of bodies. “I picked up a guy and threw him on the ground. The thing is that I try to get our running backs out of there as quick as possible because I know what goes on down at the bottom of the pile.”
But Homer noticed something else: The Trojans’ prolific smack talk was increasing.
“I took it as nervousness on their part,” he said. “It was like they were thinking, 'Oh (bleep), this team might actually come back and beat us!'”
With 3:03 left in the game, the scoreboard read Washington 13, USC 13. The Huskies faced a 3rd-and-15 in their own territory. Locker rolled out to avoid pressure and connected with Jermaine Kearse along the sideline for 21 yards and a huge first down. Kearse orchestrated the catch like a work of art, tiptoeing the boundary and extending his body to haul in the perfect spiral.
Moments later, Locker ran four yards to the Trojan 39-yard line to convert another crucial third down. He then avoided the pass rush to deliver a 19-yard strike to Kearse again, to the USC 16. A roughing-the-passer penalty put the Huskies at the 8-yard line with 33 seconds remaining.
Washington ran one play up the middle and ran the clock down to seven seconds. The placekicker Folk trotted out onto the field as the frenzied Husky Stadium crowd wavered on the verge of a joyous riot.
As Folk lined up for the kick, Washington players on the sideline locked arms and looked on with wide-eyed excitement. “At that point I knew we were going to win,” said Homer. “I had seen Folk every day and seen how hard he works. He works his ass off on the field and in the weight room. I just knew he would come through.”
Folk drilled the 25-yard field goal, and Washington led 16-13 with two seconds left. After USC was downed trying to return the subsequent kickoff, the scoreboard read 0:00, and the impossible had occurred: Washington had beaten USC.
“I went to grab one of the coaches,” said Homer. “I grabbed someone, I don’t remember who. We all ran onto the field and were yelling and hugging each other. To that point my back had been to the student section. But when I turned around, I saw a wave of fans rushing onto the field. I looked up at the student section and saw it was rapidly emptying. A few minutes later I looked up there again and the lower section was virtually empty. All these people were on the field with us.
“People were grabbing me shouting, 'Nice game!' We were all just so happy and hugging each other."
Homer is a native of Nebraska, and during his UW career his mom made the trip to Seattle twice a year to see her son play. “My mom found me there on the field. We must have hugged for at least two minutes. We were both laughing. Well, she was laughing and crying simultaneously. But we were both laughing. I’m glad I had my helmet on, because countless people kept slapping me on the head and yelling congratulations and nice game."
Even as the on-field celebration wound down and the crowd thinned, Homer lingered.
“I wanted to stay there as long as possible to enjoy the moment. I got to see the families (of teammates) that had taken care of me: the Lockers and Habbens and Chidiacs. I was one of the last guys to make it back to the locker room.”
Homer reached the locker room in time to listen to Sarkisian address the team. The young coach told them it was a day they would cherish for the rest of their lives. In the subsequent weeks to come, Homer saw the impact the win had within the university.
“People were talking about it all over campus. In class, teachers would use the win over USC as an analogy, an example of something weaker overcoming something else that was stronger. That kind of thing.”
According to Homer, professors weren’t bringing up the game in class simply because he was sitting there. In fact, he doesn’t think they knew that a football player was in their midst.
“I’m kind of low-key and try to keep it that way,” said Homer. “I look like an overweight white guy, so I can pass (as a regular student). But I would sometimes wear my jersey to science class so they would know that football players can be smart too."
Having just graduated from UW this past June, Homer is now looking toward medical school. But in looking back, his college football career got a turbo boost via that win over USC. “It was definitely one of the best moments in my life.”
Derek Johnson is the author of three books, including the recently released Bow Down to Willingham. Read a free excerpt at www.derekjohnsonbooks.com.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand.