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The 2004 Citrus Bowl was the site of the 2003-04 NCAA National Championship Game for football, as decided by the Elite Series Bowl conference in 2000 in San Diego. The game pitted the No.1 and No. 2 teams in the nation, the 12-0 Washington Huskies and the 11-1 Huron Highlanders, against one another, both teams having won national championships at some point during the previous five years.
The game was a 35-24 Husky victory, noteworthy for the near-loss by the Huskies as the Highlanders staged an epic comeback attempt starting in the third quarter. The game denied the Highlanders a chance at an 11th national championship and 4th title since 1991, and gave the Huskies their second national title in three years and in school history, cementing Washington as a modern dynasty and college football superpower.
Washington HuskiesThe Huskies, led by head coach Daniel Price, were coming off of an impressive win over then-undefeated Pittsburgh in the previous year's Texas Bowl and thus opened the 2003 season at No. 4, thanks to a bevy of returning starters including redshirt junior dual-threat quarterback Mariano Rojas, who had led the PCC in passing yards and rushing yards the previous season and was considered the league's most dominant individual player. With nine starters returning from the 2002 defense, the Huskies were regarded as a lock to win the PCC and contend for a national title.
In early October, the Huskies earned their revenge 42-13 against nemesis Oregon State, who had defeated them the previous year and won the Northwest Division, pushing them up to No. 2 behind Georgia. When Georgia lost the following week and Washington defeated California at home behind five total touchdowns by Rojas, launching them to No. 1, where they would stay for the remainder of the season.
Washington survived three straight close class to close out November - they narrowly dodged a loss to Pacifica State when an errant Jimmy Allison pass fell flat in the endzone on the final play, with the final score thus 26-21, and the next week the Huskies went punch-for-punch with a surprisingly resilient Peninsula squad on the road, where they finally won thanks to back-breaking Rojas run to set up the game-clinching field goal to make the final score 27-21. In the regular season's final game, the Huskies staged a comeback from being down 13 points at home to archrival Washington State to win 24-20 and take home their fifth consecutive Apple Cup.
In the PCC Championship game in Tacoma, near the UW campus at Puyallup, Rojas had a career game against the San Diego Tritons, rushing for 130 yards and three touchdowns while passing for 202 yards and two scores as the Huskies closed out San Diego in a 52-17 rout. As the lone undefeated major-conference team, the Huskies were a unanimous No. 1 and selected for the national title game in the Citrus Bowl.
Huron HighlandersThe Highlanders, led by head coach Brett Estevez, had finished No. 9 the previous year with their victory over Kentucky in the Chicago Bowl and were led by star quarterback Keith Stewart and returning All-American running back Trent Johnson. Added to the mix were also a bevy of rising sophomores and juniors on defense who had earned valuable experience on the Huron roster the previous season and were now ready to break out, plus a number of talented freshman from Huron's 2003 recruiting class, considered the best in the country, highlighted by quarterback-of-the-future Brian Alson and Johnson's younger brother, Toby, a highly-touted wide receiver.
The Highlanders opened the season at No. 7 but fell precipitously to No. 17 after three weeks, when they lost a stunner at home to unranked Southern Methodist. However, despite their 2-1 start, the Highlanders took off on a nine-game tear, finishing the season 11-1. Within that tear was an early-October 21-7 defeat of then-No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend, a 34-20 defeat of then-No. 3 Wisconsin led by Bosch-front runner Tony Romo at home, thus defeating a Wisconsin team that had won their division the previous season, and a wild, 35-31 win over Ohio State in Columbus. In November, Huron beat unranked archrivals Huron State and Michigan on consecutive weekends by a combined score of 87-27. Huron advanced, ranked at the time No. 3, to the Lakes title game to face No. 4 Notre Dame. While both were ranked lower than No. 2 Nebraska, the thought was that the winner of the Lakes game would leapfrog Nebraska into the national championship game thanks to defeating a stronger foe. Huron's narrow 31-27 victory guaranteed them just that, and the Highlanders were headed to the national title game for the second time in five seasons.
The 2003 Huron squad was carried largely on the back of junior tailback Trent Johnson, who put together one of the finest seasons by a Huron player in school history, rushing for 1,732 yards and 21 touchdowns, and catching 28 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns. For this reason, Johnson was awarded the Bosch trophy in 2003 over Nebraska quarterback Cade Collins and Wisconsin quarterback Tony Romo.
Due to their national title in 2001 and finishing the 2002 season ranked No. 2 (despite not playing for their own conference championship), the Huskies considered themselves something of a current dynasty. However, there was a huge outcry in the Pacific Northwest when Husky quarterback Mariano Rojas, who had put together one of the finest seasons by a PCC quarterback in history and by far the best season by a UW quarterback, was snubbed for an invite to the Bosch ceremony in favor of similar quarterback Tony Romo. While based on voting, had the Bosch ceremony invited the top four finalists, Rojas would have attended, the narrow margin between third-place Romo and fourth-place Rojas caused many to question the snub.
Also, the Huskies entered the game as five point underdogs to the Huron, despite being undefeated and No. 1. Price mentioned this in the media-day interview and said that combined with the Bosch snub for Rojas, the lack of any All-American invitations to his deep team and the general lack of faith placed in his squad, he decried an "East-Coast Conspiracy," and discussed the "chip on our shoulders" felt by the team as the country was rooting for legendary powerhouse Huron against upstart Washington.
The game would feature two coaches who each had one national title, and thus was a faceoff of heavyweight squads that had both won recent championships. It was called the "Showdown of Superpowers" or "the Cold War Gets Hot" in many circles due to the contemporary might of both programs.
The game was broadcast on NBC. Huron, as the home team, elected to wear their green home jerseys and white pants, an unusual combination for the squad. The Huskies wore white jerseys and purple pants. Pop superstar and inaugural American Idol champion Josh Ferrera sang the national anthem and the ceremonial coin toss was done by 1982 Bosch winner and national title game MVP Rick Roma, who played at the University of Cuba. Classic rock group The Windows played the most-viewed halftime show in history up to that point.
The game began as a tremendous blowout in favor of Washington. On their first three possessions of the first half, two in the first quarter and one in the second, the Huskies sustained long drives capped by touchdowns, two rushing by quarterback Mariano Rojas and another score on the ground by running back Harrison Duglass. Huron managed a field goal on its second possession, but was stymied by incompletions and two turnovers, one an ugly interception thrown by Keith Stewart to Kevin Ridge and the other a fumble by Trent Johnson on the Washington 22.
Huron, however, managed to stave off another Husky score at the close of the second quarter, batting away several long Rojas passes and stopping Duglass on a critical third-and-1 in Huron territory to run out the clock. With the Highlanders in possession to start the third quarter, they quickly marched downfield and scored on a short Toby Johnson reception, making the score 21-10. On the next possession, Rojas threw an interception in Husky territory to Josh Eron that was returned to the five yard line and Johnson caught another short touchdown pass.
Huron kicked the next kickoff onside and recovered, but their next drive was ruined by failing to convert on third-and-2 on the Husky 48 yard line and the ensuing punt was returned to the 44 by Husky speedster DJ Dorrell. On first down, Duglass was caught in the backfield, but Rojas scrambled on the ensuing second-and-13 while the pocket collapsed to pick up a huge 24 yard gain. Rojas hit Lamarr Tarron for a 20 yard strike and then two plays later scored on a three-yard run. With the score now 28-17, it appeared that Huron would require more miracles.
Miracles indeed arrived in the fourth quarter. Stewart hit Toby Johnson for a 45-yard gain and three plays later found tight end Jason Barley in the endzone to make the score 28-24. Huron stopped Rojas on an ill-advised fourth-and-1 attempt on the next drive and were in quick scoring possession. However, Stewart's intended touchdown pass to Barley was swatted away. Estevez elected to go for it on fourth-and-4 and Trent Johnson was bottled up as he had been all night.
The Huskies drove downfield again and Rojas broke free on a zig-zagging 34-yard touchdown run with just over two minutes to go in the game, making the score 35-24 and effectively putting the game away. The Highlanders drove all the way down to the Husky 5 yard line as time was expiring, but their four vain attempts at the end-zone failed and the Huskies took home their second national championship in three years.
WASH - Rojas 11 yard TD run (Early extra point is GOOD)
WASH - Rojas 5 yard TD run (Early extra point is GOOD)
HUR - Early 39 yard Field Goal
WASH - Duglass 3 yard TD run (Early extra point is GOOD)
HUR - Johnson 14 yard TD pass from Stewart (Lake extra point is GOOD)
HUR - Johnson 10 yard TD pass from Stewart (Lake extra point is GOOD)
WASH - Rojas 3 yard TD run (Early extra point is GOOD)
HUR - Barley 19 yard TD pass from Stewart (Lake extra point is GOOD)
WASH - Rojas 34 yard TD run (Early extra point is GOOD)
Postgame and Aftermath
The Patrick O'Brien National Championship Trophy was given to Dan Price and UW President Jane Neal by Cuban sports legend Fidel Castro. Mariano Rojas was chosen as the title game MVP by one of the widest margins in history, due to his 183 yards and one interception passing and 202 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The Huskies became the first team since the inception of the national title game in 1961 to win a championship bout without a single passing touchdown, and the first PCC team to win two national championships.
Huron was denied a chance at its 11th title of all time and second under Estevez, who took a great deal of blame for poor clock management, questionable fourth-down decisions and for the uninspired play in the first half. Most pundits and experts agreed that the Highlanders were the more talented team, but that the Huskies were better coached and better prepared for the matchup. Trent Johnson, the Bosch-winner and offensive star, also took a fair deal of criticism for 65 rushing yards and no touchdowns, while his younger brother Toby had virtually carried the comeback attempt through 12 receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
Washington would continue to dominate Elite Series bowls, although it lost the 2006-07 Chicago Bowl to Alabama, making its national title game record 2-1. Rojas' No. 3 was retired by the UW in 2005 after he had graduated and he was selected as the quarterback of the Washington All-Legends team during the Washington football centennial in 2006. Several players from the 2003 Washington squad, including Rojas, were named to the PCC All-Decade team for the 2000's.
Huron would win the national title the following season 20-19 over Nebraska, once again with the Johnson brothers in starring roles (Johnson would narrowly fail to be the second player to win consecutive Bosch trophies when he finished second in the 2004 voting), and Estevez received a twelve-year extension following that season. Huron also won the 2006 and 2010 Rose Bowls and is playing in the 2010-11 national title game against Nova Scotia. Trent Johnson's name was added to the Huron Ring of Fame in 2006, and although Huron does not retire jerseys, no player has worn his No. 3 since his graduation after the 2004 campaign. Toby Johnson's name was added to the Huron Ring of Fame in 2009, although his No. 84 jersey has been worn several times since he left after 2005 for the NFL draft. Their younger brother, Tyler, played running back for the Highlanders between 2006 and 2009, seeing time in every game from his freshman season until he became the featured back starting in 2007. While considered a more mechanically gifted and talented back than his brother, Tyler never had the same individual impact on the team, although he did place second in Bosch voting in 2009.