Nov. 26, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Alameda Ta'amu smiled beneath a knot on his forehead. He had made a determined tackle with his helmet knocked off - before teammate Cort Dennison accidentally used his helmet to drill the fellow senior's noggin at the end of the play.
That was how much the Huskies wanted this 104th Apple Cup.
Kasen Williams' grin was almost as wide. The freshman wide receiver was reliving his open-field hurdle of a standing Washington State Cougar. The "ridiculous" play, as coach Steve Sarkisian called it, set up his second touchdown reception of the first half.
"I've wanted to hurdle someone all year," last year's 7-foot Washington state high-jump champion in high school said. "I was up there."
So are the revitalized Huskies. Again.
The Apple Cup is staying at UW.
Keith Price returned from a sprained knee last week to throw for 291 yards and three touchdowns to set the Washington record for scoring throws in a season. That, Chris Polk's one touchdown receiving and another rushing on yet another 100-yard rushing night, plus a punt Thomas Tutogi blocked for a touchdown by Jesse Callier early sent the driven Dawgs to a 38-21 victory over Washington State Saturday at CenturyLink Field.
"It was a party on the field," Callier said, with another Husky smile.
What a sweet way to begin UW's interim stint of home games on the Seattle Seahawks' home field while Husky Stadium gets renovated into 2013.
The Huskies (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12) improved their final regular season record for the third consecutive year. That hadn't happened since 1989-91, the run up to and through UW's national championship.
They are just the eighth team anywhere since 1960 to make two bowl games within three years of a winless season.
"I can't wait to have fun (at another bowl)," Ta'amu said. "Two bowl games in three years? After going 0-12? We've come a long ways."
Washington ended its first winning regular season since going 7-5 in 2002. On the field in front of the roaring Husky Band, Sarkisian gave Washington Governor Christine Gregoire a big hug and pats on the back as she presented him with the third Apple Cup trophy for the third time in his three years as UW's turnaround coach.
The Huskies now await bowl selections that will be announced Dec. 4. They could be headed to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, returning to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, or going to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, depending on if Oregon and Stanford - the only two teams ahead of UW in the Pac-12 North -- both get into the Bowl Championship Series again.
Washington athletic director Scott Woodward was chatting with an executive from the Alamo Bowl in the winning locker room after the game.
"I couldn't be more proud of our seniors ... from where their careers are started to now, a 7-5 football team going to their second consecutive bowl game," Sarkisian said. "They've been the catalysts for us to change the culture of this football program and the expectations of this football program.
"It was a really fitting way for them to go out in the regular season."
It sure fit Ta'amu.
The defensive tackle impacted this game more than any since the Huskies' win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl 11 months ago. He made four tackles - including the one with his helmet off. He made 2 ½ stops for losses. He had two sacks. He seemed to be in the backfield as much as the Cougars' running backs.
Outside linebacker Princeton Fuimaono had four more tackles for losses and one sack among his team-high nine tackles. And Washington's defense, mad at itself for the three-game losing streak and four losses in five games entering Saturday, sacked WSU's Marshall Lobbestael seven times. Washington had just 17 sacks in 11 games before this breakout.
With Washington leading 31-21 in the fourth quarter, safety Sean Parker intercepted Lobbestael in the fourth quarter on a great tip play by teammate Desmond Trufant, who leaped at a deep jump ball with WSU's Marquess Wilson at the UW 8. That set up Polk's second score, a 1-yard run with 5:23 left to seal the win.
Price played through a thumb cramp that took him out of the game for a series -- add that odd injury to the three sprained knees, the sprained ankle and the sore shoulder he's had this fall. He completed 21 of 29 passes, as Sarkisian chose maximum protections and had him thrower deeper than in the last month while WSU crowded the line to stop Polk.
The indestructible redshirt sophomore now has 29 touchdown passes this season, one more than Cody Pickett had at UW in 2002.
"He's an absolute stud. Keith Price is a stud. He's a warrior, an outstanding competitor," Sarkisian said. "He wasn't healthy.
"It's been an amazing season for a young man for whom there were so many expectations - who's going to replace Jake (Locker)? - and all that pressure. ... He's a great competitor. And a winner."
So is Williams. His two touchdown catches in the first half came against a defense for Washington State (4-8, 2-7) that looked stunned by how great his plays were.
The first score was a one-arm snare of a dart from Price zinged over the ear hole of WSU's defensive back in the end zone. The 16-yard play gave the Huskies a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. That was after Tutogi had blocked WSU's first punt with one hand while a Cougar was trying to ward him off. Callier ran it in for the game's opening score on a new punt play the Huskies had put in this week and aptly named "Cougar block."
Williams, last year's Parade Magazine national high school player of the year from Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., became Superman to set up his second touchdown. The 2010 state high-school champion high jumper hurdled a Cougar and stayed on his feet to run for the final yards of an 18-yard reception.
"What a ridiculous play by Kasen Williams. I mean, Jiminy Christmas," Sarkisian said, still wowed hours later. "It looked like he jumped seven feet in the air - just like he's a seven-foot high jumper. I have a feeling that highlight ... is going to be shown for a long, long time."
On the next play, Price found Williams open between a cornerback and a safety on the left side of the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown. That made it 21-14 at halftime.
Polk's 22-yard catch from Price and run out of the backfield and down the sidelines made it 28-14 with 9 minutes gone in the third quarter. Wilson's 38-yard reception got WSU within 28-21 1:25 later. But the fourth quarter was all UW: A field goal from Erik Folk, the relentless Huskies' pass rush and Polk's final score to end it.
The postgame scene was not as wild as the one after last December's Apple Cup in Pullman, when UW had to win to get to a bowl then did on a pass from Locker to Jermaine Kearse in the final 2 minutes. But it was one of equal satisfaction.
Defensive coordinator Nick Holt gave his wife Julie a long hug on the field. After the governor gave Sarkisian the trophy, he passed it around to his seniors. Eventually it got to Parker. The sophomore first-time starter this season who leads the Huskies with four interceptions wouldn't let go. He took it off the field into the locker room.
Outside it, Sarkisian stood like the proudest door man on the West Coast. He hugged and high-fived each Washington player and staff member who entered.
Is the two bowl games and uptick in wins each of the first three regular seasons the plan he had for the Huskies when he arrived in January 2009 as a champion offensive coordinator from USC?
"It sure feels like it," Sarkisian said. "We're getting better. I know some weeks and times it doesn't look like that, but it's a tribute to our guys that they keep putting the work in. This has been an amazing process. I can't wait to get old and retire and write a book about it.
"We're moving in the right direction. We just have to hit on the consistency factor."
QUICK HITS: Tutogi's play was the first blocked punt for UW since 2008, and first for a score since the 2006 Apple Cup. ... Williams enters the bowl game tied with Kearse and Austin Seferian-Jenkins for the team lead with six TD catches. ... Polk's 1,341 yards gives him two of the top five rushing seasons in UW history. He needs 205 yards to break Napoleon Kaufman's career rushing mark. ... This is the Huskies' first three-game winning streak over the Cougars since a six-game one through 2003.