Dec. 6, 2010
by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Jake Locker and his teammates sat in their Husky Stadium meeting room Sunday night living a dream.
It's the same one that kept the star quarterback at UW for a senior season instead of becoming first-round pick in the NFL draft last spring.
Athletic department staff outlined to the Huskies a schedule between now and Dec. 30, when Washington (6-6) plays Nebraska (10-3) in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. It's UW's first postseason game since 2002 -- and the realization of the goal Locker and 16 other Husky seniors set the first day they stepped on campus about five years ago.
"It was crazy, man," Locker said moments after the bowl meeting, grinning like Christmas came three weeks early. "I really don't know how all this works, since I've never been to a bowl. It was really cool to be in that room and hear that we are going to practice these days, have these days off, visit these places in San Diego.
"It puts a smile on my face. It feels good."
Holiday Bowl president Eric Graves confirmed Monday night that Washington will be the home team for its fourth appearance in the annual game in San Diego, which begs the question: Will the Huskies wear purple, or the new black they sported to rave reviews in home finale against UCLA?
Whatever Washington wears, the Holiday Bowl validates the remarkable turnaround coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff have produced within two seasons of the program finishing 0-12.
Yet Sarkisian deflected praise to Locker and his classmates.
"I am truly thankful, because when you change a culture you need leadership," Sarkisian said. "All of the seniors really bought into what we were doing. They stuck in there through many up and downs. Now they get to reap the benefits."
One is the four days off players are getting before bowl practices begin Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
That will specifically help Chris Polk rest from his career workload Saturday night at Washington State. In an Apple Cup Washington had to win to qualify for the postseason, the sophomore plowhorse bulled through the Cougars 29 times for 284 yards, the second most in UW history and 12 yards behind what Hugh McElhenny did more than half a century ago. The Pac-10 honored his mammoth night by naming Polk its player of the week on Monday.
"It's a running back's dream to get that many carries," Polk said.
He scored on touchdowns runs of 2 and 57 yards Saturday. He also set up Locker's winning touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse with his 15-yard run on fourth and 1 with 81 seconds remaining. Polk zoomed past the 1,000-yard plateau for the second consecutive season, joining Napoleon Kaufman and Greg Lewis as the only Huskies to rush for 1,000 yards twice.
Sarkisian said the time off before the bowl could get starting defensive end Talia Crichton, who has missed the last six games with a knee injury, and freshman backup safety Sean Parker (shoulder stinger) back on the field.
It won't help defensive tackle Semisi Tokolahi. The recent stalwart starter was scheduled for surgery Sunday to set a broken ankle he sustained in the Apple Cup. Wide receiver, punt returner and holder Cody Bruns is also out for the Holiday Bowl because of a broken clavicle. Walk-on wide receiver William Chandler will hold on placekicks in San Diego, as he did to finish the Apple Cup.
Locker is enjoying these four days off. He hopes to have his broken rib fully healed by the time he seeks to avenge UW's 56-21 home loss to Nebraska in September.
This is far from the same Huskies team that the Cornhuskers beat 11 weeks ago. These Dawgs are riding their program's first three-game winning streak since 2006. All of them came in must-win games, against UCLA, at California and at WSU, after Washington was 3-6.
"We're playing with a more confidence and we're a lot better football team right now," said Locker, who will start his 40th and final game at UW in the Holiday Bowl. "Everyone in that locker room is extremely excited in the opportunity we have."
Trying to avenge that loss to the Cornhuskers, who rolled that day behind sprinting quarterback Taylor Martinez and their running game, is a storyline that will come up repeatedly for the next 24 days until kickoff in San Diego.
"We still have work to do," senior safety and co-captain Nate Williams said. "The main thing for us is it's an opportunity to get revenge on them a little bit. They came in and whipped us pretty good, so there will be motivation right off the top.
"We're excited for it."
Sarkisian is from Southern California and is a former Rose Bowl-winning coordinator at USC. He has 41 players from California on his Huskies roster. So the Holiday Bowl appearance will be a boon to recruiting, with UW being able to spend a high-profile week in its base and then play on national television while no other bowl game being played in the country that night.
"It is big for us," Sarkisian said of the impact on recruiting.
Sarkisian's first three bowl practices as a head coach this weekend will be development time for younger players, as the veterans will mostly watch, rest and mentor. All players will then have Dec. 13-15 off during final exams before resuming practice on Dec. 16 for five consecutive days. That is when Sarkisian's staff will install the Holiday Bowl game plan.
The team flies to San Diego on Dec. 23 and resumes practice there on Christmas Eve through the Dec. 30 game. There are also team days scheduled at the San Diego Zoo, Sea World and aboard the USS Ronald Reagan for a luncheon and tour hosted by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
Sarkisian has promised the Huskies, their staff and their families will enjoy all that wowed Locker as the quarterback heard the team's bowl itinerary.
Yet Sarkisian is focused on Washington winning a bowl game for the first time since the 2001 Rose Bowl, over Purdue. That's why he is already studying Nebraska.
"We're going to down there to win the game," Sarkisian said. "This isn't a vacation."