Nov. 23, 2010
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by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Same opponents. Same, ending time of year. Same momentum.
"I hope. I hope we can continue on this trend," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said.
If Washington (4-6, 3-4 Pac-10) does what it did last November and early December - comes back from time off to beat California and Washington State - the Huskies will qualify for their first bowl game since 2002.
The first task to end the 2010 regular season comes Saturday at Cal (5-6, 4-4). The Bears return most of their starters from last Dec. 5, when UW beat them 42-10.
"It's almost the exact same team we played last year," senior safety and co-captain Nate Williams said.
There are other, good-omen similarities from late in 2009.
The Huskies came off a bye before recharging to win their final two games then. This year's team has played just once since Nov. 6. And it had one of its best performances of the season in that one game, last week's 24-7 win over UCLA.
Washington also finished 2009 playing better defensively and running the ball better than they had all season.
"And those two things came to light again Thursday night versus UCLA," Sarkisian said of UW's home finale. "I'd like for that trend to continue."
Sarkisian promises more of the running duo of sophomore Chris Polk and freshman Jesse Callier Saturday beginning at 12:30 p.m. in Berkeley. Polk romped for career highs of 138 yards on 26 carries and a touchdown while Callier ran for 107 on 10 rushes against the Bruins. It was the first time UW had two 100-yard rushers in the same game since 2007 - against Cal.
Their running lessened the burden on quarterback Jake Locker and his broken rib. The senior captain, who lit up Cal last season with 19-of-23 passing and three touchdowns plus 77 yards and two more scores rushing, got another X-ray Monday to check his healing. Locker then ran the first-team offense through the snow and cold in Monday afternoon's practice. Sarkisian said he anticipates Locker will make his 38th career start Saturday, and Locker says "I feel really good ... with how I'm progressing."
That progress accelerated last Friday and Saturday, when the Huskies enjoyed a mini bye from having played on Thursday. And the UCLA game came after a full week off. That means when Locker leads the Huskies against the Bears he will have played just four quarters in the 28 days since he broke the rib. The injury often takes at least six weeks to fully heal.
"I think that for a lot of guys it will make a big difference," Locker said of the Huskies having two more days off than Cal has had, as the Bears lost big at home to Stanford last Saturday.
So Polk, who had 94 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries last year against Cal, and Callier will be fresh for another day of run, run and run some more, if Washington indeed follows what worked against UCLA.
"We'll play to that, because I think that's the way that you win in November: You're able to run the ball and you're able to play defense," Sarkisian said. "That'll be a big factor in our final two ball games. It's definitely going to be a big part of it this week."
One similarity the Huskies would rather not have from the 2009 meeting with Cal is that Shane Vereen will again be running against them. He was about the only Bear productive against the Dawgs last season, running for 92 yards on 16 carries.
The junior has 1,061 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing this season, with five 100-yard rushing games. That's more firepower than anyone from UCLA brought against UW last week.
Huskies middle linebacker Cort Dennison calls Vereen "one of the best running backs in the conference. They are going to try to pound it at us."
There are also differences from the end of last season for Washington, differences which make Saturday's must-win game treacherous.
The Huskies aren't going to be home as they were when they routed Cal last year. This will be the Bears' final home game for their seniors, and Washington saw last week how that emotion can work in a home team's favor. It is also Cal's final game in original, venerable Memorial Stadium before it gets renovated. The Bears will play next season at the home of baseball's San Francisco Giants.
And those '09 Bears that the Huskies beat almost 12 months ago had already clinched a bowl berth. These Bears need to beat UW to get back to a bowl. And they should be angry because of what Stanford did to them last weekend.
Plus, as Huskies wide receiver Devin Aguilar said aptly summarizing the 2010 season, "The Pac-10's crazy."
All that makes Saturday's bowl-elimination game far more compelling than Washington's win over Cal late last season.
"(It's) a ball game that's a must-win game for both teams," Sarkisian said.
"It shapes up as exciting for both programs and the people involved."