Nov. 28, 2010
by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - They were barking and hooting as their plane took off from Oakland's airport. Then as their latest thrill ride ended Saturday night, the resurgent Huskies rocked their team buses from side to side on the tarmac of SeaTac Airport - just as they had hours earlier upon arrival at California's Memorial Stadium.
It was four hours after Washington had kept alive hopes of playing in its first bowl game since 2002 with Chris Polk's touchdown run on the last play to beat Cal. Yet the Huskies looked and sounded like they wanted to keep on playing.
"I'm just so proud to be on this football team, playing with these guys," senior quarterback Jake Locker said.
His leadership and gritty running with a broken rib on the final drive led Washington to the season-saving rally Saturday.
Two consecutive victories and - presto! -- the Huskies (5-6, 4-4 Pac-10) are suddenly tied for third in the Pac-10. A long-sought bowl bid is theirs if the Huskies beat Washington State (2-9, 1-7) this weekend in the Apple Cup.
"(This) allows us to go into Pullman next weekend and compete for something that we haven't been able to do in a long time now," Locker said. "It's exciting. It's right where we want to be."
A bowl would validate second-year coach Steve Sarkisian's revival of the program.
"I'm so happy for the seniors to have this opportunity," Sarkisian said before he gave the team Sunday off. "And I'm happy for the state of Washington that this Apple Cup will mean something (more), for both teams."
Top-ranked conference champion Oregon is on track to play in the BCS championship game. Losses by higher-ranked Boise State and LSU this past weekend gives Stanford's hopes of the BCS including it in the Rose Bowl a huge boost.
That leaves the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Holiday Bowl in San Diego, the Sun Bowl in El Paso - the next three games in the Pac-10's postseason arrangements - available for slumping Arizona (7-4, 4-4), plus possibly Washington and Oregon State (5-6, 4-4). Arizona is already bowl-eligible and would appear to be headed to the Alamo. But Oregon State must upset Oregon at home this weekend to qualify for the postseason.
So a Washington victory in the Apple Cup could send the Dawgs to San Diego to play a Big 12 team such as Missouri (10-2) in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30. That would be the biggest national showcase for the program since December 2001, when the Huskies lost to ninth-ranked Texas 47-43 - in the Holiday Bowl.
Huskies seniors and underclassmen alike realize how huge it is to be playing for any bowl two seasons after going 0-12.
"It means everything in the world," Cort Dennison said Saturday inside Memorial Stadium.
The junior linebacker's eyes were as wide as Cal's old oval.
"I mean, our coaches instill in our minds every day `It's how you finish.' And the players have bought into it."
But Washington State has had two weeks off since it routed Oregon State in Corvallis. The Huskies know the Cougars, many of whom are from the Seattle area, would love to derail their rival's postseason dreams by avenging UW's 30-0 romp in last season's Apple Cup.
"It's going to be real hectic," said Polk, who bulled for the winning score in Saturday's 16-13 victory from 1 yard out, behind an unbalanced line to which Cal never adjusted.
"They aren't just going to lay down and let us go in there and have our way."
Nick Holt is the coordinator of a revitalized Huskies defense that has not allowed a touchdown in its last seven quarters. He said he was already starting his preparation for WSU's offense on Saturday night's flight home from Cal.
He is prepping for a different kind of offense, a more dangerous passing one led by WSU's Jeff Tuel. The sophomore entered the weekend fourth in the Pac-10 in total offense at 241 yards per game.
Cal was basically inert through the air Saturday because of the skittish passing of backup Brock Mansion. The injury fill-in completed 12 of 23 throws for 92 yards with an interception.
That allowed Washington to key on the running of Shane Vereen. The Huskies held him to 41 of his 106 yards rushing after halftime, when Cal led 3-0. The Bears' only touchdown came on a 21-yard return of a fumble by Jake Locker, who was hit while he was sacked in the third quarter.
Dennison said the difference in the last two games is that a revamped defensive line is now controlling its assigned gaps, freeing linebackers and safeties to make more plays. That line has welcomed the first two starts in the career of sophomore tackle Semisi Tokolahi. Tokolahi had a sack and 1½ of Washington's seven tackles for loss at Cal.
More play like that in the Apple Cup this weekend could have the Huskies back in a bowl - and again living up to their coach's expectations.
"Going from not winning one game in my freshman year to this year and winning like this, on the road, feels real good," junior Jermaine Kearse said.
His twisting, lunging, 46-yard catch on the final drive at Cal put UW in position to win.
"Coach Sark has everyone expecting to win. That's our motto. He's constantly telling us that: `Expect to win.'"