Dec. 4, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
PULLMAN, Wash. - Chris Polk sat with a smile as huge as his night, on a purple storage trunk inside a roaring Huskies locker room. Everyone from UW athletic director Scott Woodward to equipment men were patting him on the shoulder pads. His jersey was stained red -- from blowing through crimson-clad Cougars.
"Thank you," Polk said simply, repeatedly, after the second-best rushing day in Huskies history.
No, Chris Polk. Thank you.
Jake Locker got choked up and his eyes moistened while the quarterback sat on a padded bench. The reason he turned down millions from the NFL and came back for a fifth, senior season at UW had just come true - thanks to one, wondrously validating throw.
Amid it all, second-year coach Steve Sarkisian stood thrusting the Apple Cup trophy toward his Dawgs in the middle of the locker room.
"Two years ago Monday, I met you for the first time," the first-time head man told this recently 0-12 team. "I didn't know how long it would take, but I didn't think it would take very long.
"As sure as (heck), it hasn't!"
How do you like them Apples?
Jermaine Kearse leaped over a defensive back to snare a 27-yard touchdown pass from Locker with 44 seconds remaining, and the rollicking Huskies beat back archrival Washington State 35-28 Saturday night in the 103rd Apple Cup at Martin Stadium to secure Washington's first bowl appearance since 2002.
The Huskies (6-6, 5-4 Pac-10), who rolled to 571 yards, are likely to accept a bid Sunday night to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego to be played on Dec. 30 against a team from the Big 12 Conference. The Alamo Bowl in San Antonio on Dec. 29 remains a lesser possibility.
The Holiday Bowl had its president sitting in the press box. There was no Alamo Bowl representative present, suggesting the San Antonio game will choose Arizona (7-5, 4-5) in its Pac-10 agreement.
"It's everything I've ever hoped, all that I could enjoy," Locker said, his voice catching tears and forming in his eyes in a room off the locker room. "It's awesome."
Polk continually bulled through Cougars for 284 yards on 29 carries, 12 short of Hugh McElhenny's school record set half a century to go. That fulfilled the edict Sarkisian had written for himself on both sides of his play-call card before the game: POUND THAT ROCK.
Polk pounded, all right. He kept breaking off huge runs that turned momentum almost every time Washington State (2-10, 1-8) scored. His 15-yard run off right tackle to the Cougars 16 on fourth and 1 with 1:21 left put the Huskies in position for the triumphant, Locker-to-Kearse connection.
"Even if I had to take on the whole defense, I wasn't going to be stopped," Polk said, sounding as determined as he ran.
Daring Sarkisian, who eschewed the game-tying field goal on the final play and called Polk's winning run last week at Cal, changed his mind Saturday night after he had put kicker Erik Folk on the field to try a go-ahead, 49-yard field goal with 81 seconds left. As the play clock was winding down, Sarkisian called time out to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. He then put the offense back on the field, and Polk romped 16 yards off right tackle to set up Locker's winning pass.
"I was going to kick it. Luckily for us, the clock was running down," Sarkisian said. "But we've been aggressive all along."
The Huskies dodged snowballs from the WSU student section and responded after blowing a 28-14 lead Polk had given them early in the final period. It was the first time since 2005 the Apple Cup had a 200- yard rusher. This one helped the Dawgs to their third consecutive win and an improbable third-place finish in the Pac-10.
Locker completed 14 of 22 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also had a 77-yard touchdown run called back, yet still came through at the end to secure the goal that drove him back to UW for a fifth, senior season instead of to the NFL draft last spring.
Is it all he hoped for?
"It's more," he said. "It's just a culmination of a lot of things, to come together like we have.
"That's why it's so awesome to play with these guys."
One play after a sack by UW's Victor Aiyewa of Jeff Tuel on fourth and 2, Polk appeared to put the Huskies comfortably ahead with a 57-yard touchdown romp. That made it 28-14 with 13:18 remaining.
But, true to the history of this wild, unpredictable series, the Cougars scored two touchdowns in under 5 minutes to tie the game. The second came on touchdown pass of 16 yards from Tuel to Marquess Wilson with 4:26 remaining in regulation.
The Huskies took a 21-7 lead on a stunning, 66-yard pass from Locker to Kearse on the first drive after halftime. But Washington State answered with Tuel's touchdown throw of 14 yards to Daniel Blackledge to put UW ahead only 21-14 entering the final quarter.
The Huskies controlled field position and most of the first half, and took a 14-0 lead thanks to more risk by Sarkisian. He called for walk-on injury fill-in Kiel Rasp to throw a fake-punt pass on fourth down from the WSU 42. Kearse caught that on the left sideline and went 30 yards to the Cougars 12.
Then Locker ran inside, found the lane clogged, and sprinted around left end for a 7-yard touchdown to put the Dawgs up by two touchdowns.
They were about to go up 21-0 late in the half, when Devin Aguilar was streaking open across the back of the end zone. But Locker's off balance throw was well behind his receiver, and Washington State's Deone Bucannon intercepted it in the end zone.
The play jolted the Cougars to life. They marched 80 yards the other way for a momentum-swinging score in the final minute of the half, a 5-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Tuel to Jared Karstetter. So instead of a three-touchdown bulge, Washington led only 14-7 at halftime - and was pelted by snowballs from the WSU student section as they came off the field for the break.
Locker ran as fast as he has all year for 77 yards and an apparent touchdown in the first quarter, but a Huskies holding penalty called that back. That was on an epic, 16-play drive that was Washington's first of the day. Polk, the last-play hero last week at Cal, ran for 54 of the 98 yards on the 8½-minute drive. His final two yards on the drive gave the Huskies the early 7-0 lead.
Polk never quit running. Sarkisian never stopped gambling. And the Huskies' wildly unpredictable season lives in a postseason the program hasn't seen in eight years.
"I remember seeing those kids wearing hoodies with their heads down," Sarkisian said of Dec. 6, 2008, days after Washington lost to WSU on this same field and sat silent in the same locker room, sickened at being the rock bottom of 0-12. "I don't know how many of them were proud Huskies then.
"I think tonight we can say we are proud Huskies."