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Vilardo: 1991 Title History Repeating for 2023 Huskies?

The parallels between the two Washington teams—32 years apart—are nothing short of uncanny

Posted on January 6, 2024

  By Stephen Vilardo, SuperWest Sports

When Washington and Michigan meet in Houston on Monday Night it will be a rematch of the 1992 Rose Bowl that capped off Washington’s 1991 National Championship season.

The opponent in the game will not be the only similarity between the 1991 Huskies and this year’s version, though. For one thing, the foundation for the title was laid down the year before.

In 1990, the Huskies won the Pac-1o with a 7-1 mark in conference play and a 10-2 overall record concluding with a 12-point win over Iowa in the Rose Bowl.

Last season the Huskies won seven conference games en route to an 11-2 season that finished with an Alamo Bowl win over Texas.

The 2022 Huskies would end up ranked eighth in the final AP Poll of the season. The 1990 Washington team would finish out ranked fifth in the AP Poll.

The strength of the 2023 Washington team resides on the offensive side of things. Which makes sense, since Kalen DeBoer is an offensive-minded coach.

The Huskies are averaging 37.6 points per game this season, the 10th most potent scoring offense in the nation. The defense this season is allowing 24.1 points per outing.

The 1991 squad, led by defensive-minded Don James, was much stouter on the defensive side of the ball.

Husky coach Don James | Getty Images via fox13Seattle

That year, UW allowed just 9.6 points per game, but the offense put up dominant numbers as well, averaging 41.3 points per game, second-most in the nation that season.

That margin of victory in 1991 of 31.7 points per game is astounding. This season eight of Washington’s 14 contests have been decided by one score or less.

Only one opponent in 1991 was able to keep the game within 10 points let alone a single score: Seventh-ranked Cal tested UW in a 24-17 win in Berkeley.

But while the decisiveness may differ, the results have not.

In 1991, Cal was one of three ranked opponents the Huskies faced, the other two being Nebraska (9th) and Michigan (4).

This season UW ran the gauntlet with seven wins over ranked opponents—including six of the last seven games.

Of Washington’s 10 wins over Pac-12 opponents this season, five were ranked at the time. And that does not even include Arizona, which was not ranked at the time, but may have turned out to be one of the better teams the Huskies faced.

The 1991 offense was built around the running attack of Beno Bryant, Jay Barry, and Napoleon Kaufman.

But the passing game had a dynamic playmaker on the outside in Mario Bailey, who finished the season with 1,163 yards and 18 receiving touchdowns. (The NCAA may not count stats from bowl games back then, but I will.)

This season, UW’s offense is built around the passing of Michael Penix Jr., who has thrown for a jaw-dropping average of  350 passing yards per game and 35 touchdowns, and has three future NFL receivers in Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, and Jalen McMillan.

But the running game has a dynamic player carrying the ball in Dillon Johnson. Heading into the Championship Game, he has gained 1,162 yards on the ground, and 16 TDs. Pretty similar, in fact, to the receiving numbers of Bailey.

Defensively, the 1991 team put up amazing numbers. Those Huskies finished second in the nation, allowing just 237.1 yards per game, and limited opponents to an NCAA-leading 3.6 yards per play.

Washington generated 39 turnovers in 11 regular-season games and owned the second-best turnover margin in the country at 1.73.

Mario Bailey | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The 12-0 season in 1991 came in the middle of a 22-game winning streak that began with the final two games of 1990 and extended to the first eight games of the 1992 season.

A win over Michigan on Monday night would push the 2023 Huskies’ current win streak to—you guessed it—22 games.

Of course, the most decorated UW player this season is Penix Jr., the Maxwell Award winner, and offensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl.

In 1991, the star for Washington was on the defensive side of the ball in Steve Emtman, who was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and took home a host of national awards as well.

The Husky defensive end would be drafted No. 1 overall by the Colts following the 1991 season. In 1994, he would be joined in Indianapolis by a new teammate, former Michigan QB Jim Harbaugh.

—More from Stephen Vilardo—