Dec. 30, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SAN DIEGO - Steve Sarkisian, the Huskies' turnaround maestro, walked late into the middle of a rocking, dancing, victorious locker room at Qualcomm Stadium. And he U-turned these Dawgs one more time.
"Hey, get back here!" the second-year coach yelled to some players and staff were heading to the bus while Sarkisian had been in an interview room. "Get out of the showers!
"I couldn't be more proud, man," the 36-year-old Sarkisian told 110 Huskies, plus coaches and staff members who just upset Nebraska 19-7 in Washington's first bowl since 2002. "For two years, you've all been willing to do everything we've asked you to do. And you've done it with gigantic hearts.
"Starting two months ago (at 3-6), nobody thought there would this night like this on Dec. 30. Nobody but you guys.
"We've Holiday Bowl champions, man! That is fantastic!"
Jake Locker's dream has come true. Heck, every purple-and-gold dream in the last eight, tumultuous years just came true.
The Huskies are back.
Locker withstood having his helmet twisted over his face with a hit to rush for 84 yards and a decisive touchdown in his final college game. Relentless Chris Polk finished his late-season stampede with 177 yards on a career-high 34 carries and the first TD. And the Huskies went from 0-12 two seasons ago to "fantastic" with a exhilarating, 19-7 throttling of the heavily favored Cornhuskers on a rollicking, purple-and-gold night at Qualcomm Stadium.
"HOW 'BOUT 'DEM DAWGS!" Sarkisian yelled to the roaring Husky fans after accepting the Holiday Bowl trophy.
Now even one of the nation's power programs knows, it really is time to bow down to Washington.
"Most amazing feeling in the world!" senior linebacker Victor Aiyewa said while tapping his chest on the field minutes after the game, which he started by forcing two fumbles on Nebraska's first drive.
Alameda Ta'amu scooped up the second loose ball on Aiyewa's strip of Rex Burkhead to set up Polk's opening touchdown. Ta'amu called it "the first punch." The junior then KO'd the Cornhuskers by knocking dynamic Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez out of the game in the fourth quarter on a sack.
"When we walked into the game, we knew we were going to win. Coach Sark does a great job instilling those values in us. He's amazing," said Aiyewa, who overcame a nomadic childhood in Houston and playing just one year of high school football to lead the Pac-10 in tackles for loss and excel academically at UW.
"We're on our way!" Sarkisian said, adding that winning the new Pac-12 next season remains the goal.
This was a complete dismantling and at the end bullying of the same team that beat Washington 56-21 in Seattle back in September. Nebraska (10-4), which came within a field goal in the Big 12 Conference title game from reaching the Bowl Championship Series, rolled to 383 yards rushing and 533 total yards in the first meeting at UW.
This time, the Huskies held Nebraska to 189 total yards - without three injured starting defensive linemen. Deep into the second half, the total yardage after halftime was 133-5 in UW's favor.
By the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers looked demoralized. And their fans were a red sea flowing to the old bowl's exits.
"Our heart is bigger, man. Our D-line's heart was bigger today than theirs," Ta'amu said of a unit outweighed by the Huskers across the board. "We were out to prove everybody wrong.
"We were doin' business all day. Our defense was cookin'."
The taste was so sweet, especially for the seniors.
When it was over, Locker led the Huskies (7-6) in a race to the opposite end of the stadium. Players leaped and hugged each other in front of the rockin' Husky Band. The Dawgs flashed 'W's - which now once again stands for winning in this proud program.
Locker pushed both hands into the air with index fingers raised, tapped his chest and told the delirious crowd, "Thank you."
"This is the experience I came back for," said the fifth-year senior, who bypassed the megamillions of a likely top 10 selection in last spring's NFL draft to lead Washington back to a bowl.
"It's been some frustrating years, but to see this program go out this way, to finish up this way ... I will always be the Huskies' biggest fan, wherever I am."
What a month for Locker: He leads UW to four consecutive wins and a bowl victory. He gets engaged. He graduates. And he vaults himself back into top 15 or so status in the NFL draft.
"I think his future is very bright," said Sarkisian, who has been an assistant with the NFL's Oakland Raiders. "He's a great young man. He's extremely humble.
"Somebody's going to get a special guy here in a couple of months."
Special abounded in purple, gold - and black - Thursday night.
Third-string defensive lineman Kelani Aldrich was making tackles for losses. Second-string backup cornerback Adam Long, in after Quinton Richardson got hurt in the fourth quarter, broke up Nebraska's 4th down heave in the end zone with his helmet with about 3 minutes left. Polk then ran out the clock - and the Huskies into bedlam.
Washington was 3-6 and Sarkisian's rebuilding was seemingly stalled last month. Then he asked Polk to carry the Huskies. We should all have such help. The redshirt sophomore bulled to another 1,000-yard season and led UW to four straight victories to end this memorable year.
"I can't really believe two years ago we were an 0-12 team," said Polk, who romped for 461 yards in his last two games. "This is exactly what I came to college for."
Washington stormed out of the locker room and through the post-halftime show smoke to seize a 17-7 lead. Locker completed his first pass of the game, on third down for 26 yards to D'Andre Goodwin. Then Locker bulled through a tackler at the 6 at the end of a 25-yard touchdown run. The usually reserved kid from Ferndale, Wash., then spiked the ball and pumped his fists. It was excited as you will see him on a field.
Washington then was poised to put the game away when it drove to the Nebraska 1. In similar situations, Sarkisian gambled and won at California and at Washington State to end the regular season and get the Huskies to this bowl. This time, Polk was stopped short and the Cornhuskers took over.
But on third and 8, Ta'amu - who blamed himself for most of the 383 yards rushing Nebraska had on the Huskies in September - broke free on Green, who was trying to throw. Guard Ricky Henry was forced to hold Ta'amu, 1 yard into the end zone. The referee's holding flag meant a safety and a 19-7 lead for the Huskies 90 seconds into the final quarter.
Washington led 10-0 before most of the nation could see it, because of an overtime bowl game on ESPN immediately preceding the Holiday Bowl.
On the Huskies' first offensive play after Ta'amu's fumble recovery, freshman running back Jesse Callier took a direct snap out of Wildcat formation and threw outside to Locker for 16 yards - is there anything Locker can't do?
A roughing penalty on Nebraska at the end of the play pushed the ball to the Nebraska 2. Two plays later, Polk ran for a 3-yard touchdown.
Polk ran three times for 22 yards and Locker ran once for 12 to put Erik Folk in position for a 39-yard field goal that made it 10-0 Huskies 13:31 into the game.
After Nebraska closed to within 10-7 on a 15-yard pass from Martinez to Kyler Reed early in the second quarter, the entire Washington program and fan base got a scare. Locker stayed down prone at the end of a 3-yard run, when Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy hit the top of his helmet on the top of Locker's.
It looked like Locker was knocked woozy. In fact, Locker's helmet had been pushed down over his eyes and over his nose, leaving him unable to see. He panicked while down and trying to move his helmet. Trainers who rushed to him couldn't move the helmet, either, and were careful not to move it much in fear of a head or neck injury.
So the medical staff told him to stay down until the helmet got pulled straightened. He eventually got up. While telling doctors he really was fine, they went through precautionary baseline tests for a possible concussion.
"It really looked worse than it was," Locker said, laughing. "I kept telling them, 'I'm fine.' But I couldn't see."
Backup Keith Price ran three plays, including a near touchdown on a long overthrow, and then Polk got stopped at the Nebraska 43 on fourth and 1 - all while Locker demanded his helmet back from a trainer on the sideline. The trainer deferred to the doctors, who eventually OK'd him to return for Washington's next series.
Locker was 0 for 7 passing in the half. Two of those throws were dropped. Three more were passes that looked far overthrown because Nebraska's defensive backs were manhandling Washington's wide receivers off the line and through the sideline, just as they did in September in Seattle.
So instead of passing, Washington relied on Polk.
That, just as the end of the final month of the season, worked out pretty well, eh?
"We just wanted to earn respect," Polk said of UW's glorious night, of its thrilling and ultimately successful season.
"I think we did that tonight."