Nov. 24, 2010
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By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Jake Locker and his fellow redshirt senior Huskies have spent five years staying motivated by getting to a bowl.
Five years of lifting weights, running, throwing, studying film for 11½ months at a time, all with a singular purpose: To get Washington to its first postseason since 2002. It would validate the program's revival.
And it's largely why Locker didn't enter the NFL draft last spring.
"It's one of the big reasons I came back was the opportunity to do that, to play in a bowl game and go hang out somewhere for a week with the team and do some fun things, whatever the bowl has for you and just enjoy that experience for a week," Locker said when I asked him this week about being so close to the possibility. "It obviously means a lot to me."
But get this: All of a sudden, within two weeks of perhaps finally getting there, within two wins of reaching their ultimate goal, the Huskies can't think about a bowl any more.
It is the latest in a season full of mental edges sharpened by coach Steve Sarkisian. The latest one is preparing the Huskies (4-6, 3-4 Pac-10) for Saturday's bowl-elimination game against Cal (5-6, 4-4) in Berkeley.
Washington needs to win its final two games, including next week's Apple Cup at Washington State (2-9, 1-7), to qualify for a bowl.
"As coach told us and I think it's very true: You can't win both without winning the first," Locker said. "So you can't get ahead of yourself and have to focus on what's in front of you. And that's the Cal Bears at this point."
Sarkisian, with his way of rollicking practices with blaring music, undoubtedly would make a first bowl trip in eight years for the Huskies a hoot, and diving into all that a postseason game has to offer.
Yet team leaders are passing down his message that no Husky can be motivated by the trappings of a bowl. Not yet, not while still two wins away from any of that becoming a reality.
"Oh, that's what you talk about in the offseason. But this week you can't talk about it," middle linebacker Cort Dennison said. "You focus too much on a bowl game and you let Saturday get out of hand."
Welcome to the sometimes manic, mental side of football. It is as important as the physical, performance side.
Last week it was, `We need to win the last three to get to the bowl we want, but we can't win all three unless we beat UCLA." This week, `two" has replaced "three," and "Cal" has replaced "UCLA." The mental approach remains the same. And why not? It worked to the tune of a 24-7 win over the Bruins last week. "Minimize all the periphery stuff," is what Sarkisian says he is doing. It's part of the job of a football coach to be a psychologist for his players. Unlike in other sports, the opportunity for redemption or renewal in the next game doesn't come in a day or two or even three. He must be a psychologist and psychoanalyst for players and staff in the six days, and sometimes more, between games. That's a lot of time for "periphery stuff" to surface. The mental aspect of game preparation is even more pronounced for Sarkisian. He is in Year Two of rebuilding a previously winless program. And he's a first-time coach who is still learning the right buttons to push with teenagers and kids in their early 20s. He pushed the right ones in September when he left the X's and O's largely secondary and spent almost all of the season's first bye week rebuilding the Huskies' psyche. He felt he had to, given the 35-point blowout UW absorbed at home from the Cornhuskers in the previous game.
The reprogrammed Huskies then stunned USC with one of their grittiest wins in years, their first one on the road in three seasons.
He tried a new mental tack in that afterglow, telling his players to revel in the victory, to enjoy it, instead of trying to bring them down to Earth as he had after they beat SC in 2009.
"This is Earth," is how Sarkisian put it in those heady days after UW beat the Trojans again on Oct. 2.
That tack didn't work as well. UW managed just 14 points as Arizona State handed the Huskies perhaps their most disappointing loss of the season at home in the rain.
After a wondrous win in two overtimes over Oregon State, the season looked lost because of consecutive lopsided losses at Arizona, against Stanford and at Oregon. Yet after each of those defeats, Sarkisian has worked on the Huskies' thinking as much as their running, throwing, catching and tackling.
That has created a resilient team. Says here that resiliency will prove to be as important as Locker's health, Chris Polk's running and the defense's improvement in UW's last two games -- in Cal's final game at the original Memorial Stadium before it gets renovated, and during the always zany Apple Cup scene in Pullman next week.
"We might not always appear it, but we're a tough team, there's no doubt," Sarkisian said. "We're mentally and physically a tough team."
So tough, the coach had his roster of 51 fellow natives of Southern California plus Hawaii practicing outside in Husky Stadium in the blowing snow and 25-degree temperatures as it got dark Monday. The Dempsey Indoor practice facility stood, teasing, about a long corner route beyond the east end zone. Could be Sarkisian is already toughening his boys for what they could face the following Saturday in windswept - godforsaken? - Pullman in the Apple Cup.
"Yeah, could be," Sarkisian said when asked if Monday in Seattle was Apple Cup weather.
Yet Sarkisian is not completely ignoring the Huskies' overriding motivation, the one that has been driving Locker and his classmates since way before the coach and his staff even got to UW in January 2009.
"I think the bowl game would be great for a lot of reasons. Let's not kid ourselves here," Sarkisian said. "From the first standpoint of, from our seniors, who have had four to five years of adversity, to give them that opportunity, to be in a hotel room for Christmas and to be at a bowl game, and to get gifts and all of those things that that entails.
"Two, I think it's important for our young players, to continue to develop them, to get that extra practice time, to get them exposed to that. And then, three, from a program's perspective, the natural growth is there. Whether or not that means we're getting better or not, I think it just feels that way.
"And then lastly, for our fans, to give them that opportunity to travel to a bowl game to support their team, I think they would greatly appreciate that as well."
Yes, a bowl would be great for all who wear purple and gold.
Just don't bring it up until after Dec. 4, OK?
About Gregg Bell
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
Contact Gregg Bell: email@example.com