Sept. 4, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
PROVO, Utah -- Through all the angst, the missed passes, the special-teams woes, after another late, heartbreaking loss on the road, these new Huskies had a pointed message for their doubters.
"We're not the same old Huskies," middle linebacker Cort Dennison said on the ramp leading out of LaVell Edwards Stadium minutes after BYU held off the Huskies 23-17 in the season opener on a taut, hot Saturday night in the Wasatch Mountains.
"Obviously, we're disappointed. But I've never seen a group more determined," said Dennison, who made his first start at middle linebacker in front of about 40 friends and family down from nearby Salt Lake City.
"We know we let a game get away from us. We realize there is still plenty of season left and we can do some great things. I mean, we are always going to have doubters -- but we don't care what the doubters say. We know what we're capable of. ... We're going to come back next week (at home against Syracuse)."
They almost came back Saturday at BYU.
Big plays late by Jake Locker -- who began his senior season by completing 20 of 37 throws for 266 yards with a touchdown passing and another throwing -- plus Chris Polk and Jermaine Kearse had Washington in position for a program-defining win. It would have been its first away from home since Nov. 3, 2007, at Stanford, 13 trips ago.
Then a stunning Cougar paw snatched away what would have been a catapulting Huskies victory.
BYU's Eathyn Manumaleuna jumped and stuck up a hand while getting blocked to knock down Locker's fourth-down pass to Chris Izbicki. The tight end was open as the hot read, about to beat a Cougars blitz from the BYU 27 with 1:51 left.
"No, you don't usually worry about defensive tackles (while throwing)," Locker said with a rueful smile.
The Cougars (1-0) ran out the clock from there for their 23rd win in 25 home games.
"We don't really buy into others' expectations. It's just shocking that we lost. We shouldn't have lost," Polk said, after his 92 yards on 16 carries. "What we did today doesn't define us."
No, these rebounding Huskies (0-1) weren't sulking off the field or out of their cramped locker room.
"We've got 12 games to go," coach Steve Sarkisian said softly minutes after his postgame session with the media.
Yes, Sarkisian is presuming Washington's first bowl game since 2002 is coming beyond the 11 remaining regular-season games. And his players were saying the same thing.
"But we have to get better in all three areas," Sarkisian said.
The former BYU star quarterback returned to the Cougars' campus for the first time since his final game of 1996. He was particularly surprised by mistakes in a kicking game he thought was a strength coming out of Washington's preseason camp. Brendan Lopez snapped the ball far over punter Will Mahan's head for a BYU safety that made it 7-2 in the first quarter. Polk twice slipped as a kickoff returner on the natural grass for 2-yard run backs. Those created two of the six times Washington started inside its 20, in 11 total possessions.
Yet the second-year coach told his players in the locker room afterward that their season of bowl-game expectations is far, far from being defined.
"Our team, I think they are really disappointed. In a sense, I've got to do a great job of corralling them," Sarkisian said. "This one game, (and there might be) thinking, `Oh, that's it. That was it. We put all our eggs in one basket.'
"We didn't. I didn't. I'm not going to let anyone else say that we did. It's one game of 13."
Locker and Polk were encouraged by the belief that instead of being beaten by a superior team the Huskies beat themselves, given that passes banged off hands and Locker under- and overthrew others.
""I think as a football team we played with good effort. We shot ourselves in the foot and made mistakes that were crucial in the game," Locker said.
"When you are playing hard, you can fix the other stuff."
Locker found Kearse for a 19-yard touchdown to cap Washington's first drive of the season, and ran for another score from 9 yards out. Both scores came in the first half as the Huskies took a 17-13 lead into the break, pleasing Sarkisian in his first trip back onto the BYU campus since before the Cotton Bowl at the end of the 1996 season. He finished his sociology degree online in 1997.
BYU honored Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Jim McMahon, Sarkisian and its other All-American quarterbacks with a halftime ceremony. But Sarkisian was inside the locker room with his Huskies. The second-year coach had hoped the timing would work out that his part of the ceremony would come as he was coming back onto the field for the second half, but it came early. The crowd gave him a warm applause as Sarkisian's name was announced, then it appeared most in the stadium was turning and looking for him.
Then the Cougars began the second half in a no-huddle offense that Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt said "got us a little out of our comfort zone." BYU exposed holes in the middle of Washington's defense to roll up 150 yards of offense and 10 unanswered points in the third quarter.
The crushing, decisive play came when running back JJ Di Luigi ran alone down the middle between Dennison, who was running deep with another receiver, and Victor Aiyewa, who like Dennison was starting at a new position. Di Luigi caught a pass from freshman Jake Heaps - a former star at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., who chose BYU over the Huskies -- and ran the final 30 yards untouched for a 48-yard touchdown.
Washington's first big defensive breakdown of the game put BYU up 23-17 late in the third quarter, and the Huskies ended up allowing 408 total yards.
Washington moved to the BYU 23 with 12 minutes left in the game, but on fourth-and-2 Locker rolled out right and found two defenders waiting for him to run. He pulled up to throw, but both receivers on that side were covered. Locker forced a throw into the end zone to Kearse that was knocked down.
Sarkisian said he didn't opt then for a 40-yard field goal from Erik Folk, who had a career-best field goal of 54 yards through the thin air at 4,500 feet to end the first half, that would have made it 23-20 because he wanted to capitalize getting so deep into BYU's end for a change amid all the poor field position.
Polk did get Washington out of its own end again with a 27-yard run to the Cougars 47 midway through the final quarter. But on third-and-10, Locker was pressured and knocked down as he throw high incomplete by BYU's Vic So'oto. It was one of the Cougars' rare quarterback pressures of the day.
Locker and the Huskies came back a third time, after a defensive stop. Locker found Kearse -- who had five catches for 108 yards and a touchdown - for 34 yards to the Cougars' 30. Then came the fateful fourth-and-6 with 1:55 left when Manumaleuna jumped, reached up and blocked Locker's attempted quick pass Izbicki.
"I was open. It was unfortunate," Izbicki said.
Bad penalties for roughing the punter and for pass interference allowed BYU to rally from an early 7-0 lead to take a 13-7 edge on a 9-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Riley Nelson to Joshua Quezada. Quezada got behind safety Nate Feller in the back of the end zone early in the second quarter.
But Washington re-took the lead when Locker briefly took over the game. He completed five consecutive passes to get the Huskies to the BYU 9. Then he took off following a shotgun snap, ran down the sidelines past Cougar defenders and hooked his right foot and leg inside the goal-line pylon while shifting the ball to his inside arm. The 9-yard touchdown gave the Huskies a 14-13 lead.
After Folk's booming kick that would have been good from about 60 yards, the Huskies ran off the field jumping and yelling over their 17-13 lead. They had overcome two key penalties and a punt from their own end zone that set up BYU's possessions in Washington territory in the first half.
But then came a redux of excruciating losses following halftime leads at Notre Dame and UCLA last season.
Heaps spent all day alternating series with Nelson and finished 13 for 23 for 131 yards in his collegiate debut. Sarkisian said he was impressed with his former recruiting target's poise in his first college game.
Nelson was 11 for 17 for 131 yards and two touchdowns.
"If any team can rally, this is the team that can," hardened Huskies senior linebacker Mason Foster said. "We've been through some tough times."