Dec. 30, 2010
by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SAN DIEGO - What a difference a bowl makes.
The setting is better than the last time the Huskies faced Nebraska: Washington's first postseason game since 2002. And the situation is far better. They Huskies are on a three-game winning streak, and are as confident as they've been in those eight years since that last bowl game.
Running back Chris Polk is rampaging past 1,000 yards again. Indispensible quarterback Jake Locker is healthy again following a broken rib, and he's primed for redemption in his final college start from the last time he played Nebraska. Plus, UW's defense has reinvented itself with simpler, more fundamentally sound play than it had in a 56-21 loss to the Cornhuskers early this season.
"Yeah, we're ready, man," cornerback Quinton Richardson said this week. "Ready to finally get a second chance at them and to show the world that we belong in a bowl game."
Yes, everything on the eve of the Holiday Bowl here Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. -- on ESPN television, the Washington IMG radio network and here at GoHuskies.com with a live game chat, statistics and streaming audio - is pointing to a far better result for the Huskies (6-6) against Nebraska (10-3) than what happened Sept. 18 in Seattle.
"I think the biggest thing we'd like to do is at least put our best foot forward," said second-year coach Steve Sarkisian, who has the Dawgs back in their traditional postseason place just two seasons after they were winless. "My major disappointment was the fact we just didn't play very well (in Week 3). I can live with the fact they played a very good football game against us, but I'd just like to think we can play better than we did.
"To have that opportunity again is one that I think we're embracing."
And one for which these Dawgs are frothing at the mouth to get going.
"We've got an antsy football team," Sarkisian said Wednesday morning, separated from Nebraska coach Bo Pelini by a podium and some poinsettias at a downtown hotel.
Antsy to play, that is, but not specifically for revenge.
"I don't think revenge is a factor at all," Sarkisian said.
He explained his Huskies are more concerned with bettering themselves and continuing its program-turning momentum than with exacting anything on the Cornhuskers.
"If you can't stop inside zone (runs) and you can't stop power, revenge doesn't matter," he said.
Sarkisian's schedule of 14 bowl practices ended late Wednesday afternoon with two walkthrough practices, one in a hotel ballroom and another more casual one at the Qualcomm Stadium game site.
That followed the Holiday Bowl pregame luncheon with the `Huskers at the San Diego Convention Center. Locker, Foster and co-captains Nate Williams and Senio Kelemete sat at the head table on a stage. Locker was seated closest to the Holiday Bowl trophy.
The Huskies are so anxious to get going, they arrived 40 minutes early for the event. They were the only ones seated in the big convention center room for about 25 minutes.
"When we were at home it was just so long until Dec. 30," said Williams, who like many upperclassmen had doubts whether Thursday would never come back when Washington was 0-12 in 2008.
"Now, it's finally here."
Nebraska lost the Big 12 championship game by three points to Oklahoma on Dec. 4. That was hours after the Huskies beat Washington State to win the Apple Cup and clinch UW's first bowl since the 2002 Sun.
Even Pelini realizes this Holiday Bowl is likely to be different than the teams' first meeting at Husky Stadium.
"It's a credit to Coach Sarkisian and his players that they are a better football team than the one we played then," Pelini said.
Just like Sarkisian, Pelini has worked for Pete Carroll. Pelini was a assistant with the New England Patriots when Carroll coached them in the late 1990s. Sarkisian was Carroll's quarterbacks coach then offensive coordinator at USC through the 2008 season, before he arrived to revitalize the Huskies.
Sarkisian's bowl preparation this month mirrored Carroll's with the Trojans. It included identical game-planning practice weeks, last week in Seattle and then Friday through Wednesday in San Diego. That meant the Huskies got to go over the same plays and the same Nebraska scouts looks twice, as opposed to once for opponents during the regular season. The Huskies mostly spent the first half of its two bye weeks this season focused on themselves rather than the next opponent's schemes.
"It helps a lot," Williams said. "It gives us the opportunity to be prepared better, and when you are really well-prepared you can play faster. And when you are faster, you are more confident and more effective."
Washington will need to be fast, confident and effective to slow down redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez and a Cornhuskers offense that rolled to 533 yards - 383 on the ground - in the first meeting. UW's defensive line will be missing two injured regulars who started that game, tackle Cameron Elisara and end Talia Crichton. Late-season starter and stalwart Semisi Tokolahi is also out injured.
This week, tackle Alameda Ta'amu took total blame for not staying disciplined in controlling just his own assigned gap inside as Nebraska ran wild past him. He can't wait for this chance at personal redemption.
"I'm a totally different player now," he said.
So is Martinez. He left a loss at Texas A&M on Nov. 20 with a sprained ankle. And Pelini reminded all Martinez is still just a redshirt freshman quarterback, one who eventually experienced ups and downs in the three months since he faced Washington in Seattle.
This is a vastly improved Washington different defense Martinez will be facing this time. Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt has simplified his schemes, and the front is staying home in its assigned gaps rather than trying to chase and do too much. That has freed Mason Foster to lead the Pac-10 and be second nationally in tackles. It has freed linebacking partner Victor Aiyewa to lead the conference with 18 tackles for loss.
Plus, middle linebacker Cort Dennison, UW's defensive signal-caller and traffic cop, missed that first meeting because of a concussion.
Now Dennison is back. He can't wait to make yet another difference from that September meeting.
"I'm real excited for this game, just because of how badly they beat us last time," Dennison said. "Yeah, it's a challenge. And I'm not going to back down from it."