Bowl appearances once were so routine for Washington Husky football that, from the beginning of 1978 until the end of ’02, the team attended 22. In a pair of instances the Dawgs actually visited post-season pageants twice during the same calendar years.
Then came the college-football equivalent of nuclear winter. Not only had the Huskies, prior to their 19-7 Holiday Bowl handling of Nebraska Thursday (Dec. 30) not attended a bowl game since late 2002. They hadn’t prevailed in a bowl since the dawn of 2001: nearly 10 years to the day.
The thaw indicated by the apparent re-emergence of the football program promises ongoing success under the stewardship of Steve Sarkisian. Yes, the Dawgs can play offense, notching 340 total yards against Nebraska. But few Dawg-lovers might've imagined that it would be the defense that many will remember from what could be called the Sack in San Diego.
Five times the UW defense dropped Cornhusker quarterbacks for losses totaling 43 yards: about half of what the Nebraska would amass by way of a running attack. Moreover, the sacks came at critical times, when the Huskies were trying to prevent momentum shifts by a foe that had beaten them in Seattle 56-21 on Sept. 18.
The above is the long way of saying that the happiest resident of Husky nation today may not be Sarkisian or even Chris Polk, who ran for 177 yards and may (fans fear) consider giving up college ball to go pro (not advisable given the possibility of an NFL player lockout next season). Instead the big grins were worn by Nick Holt, the manic Husky defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, whose unit yielded massive yardage and a lot of points during the regular season. Thursday the Huskers seemed to take "Holiday" literally and were limited by the intense Dawg dee to just 189 yards.
The TV station contracted to show the game also took a leisurely approach. ESPN didn't get around to giving the Holiday Bowl regular coverage until the cable station finished showing the world the double-overtime denouement of the all-important Music City Bowl — that and the end of the Stanford-Connecticut women's basketball game. It was rumored but evidently untrue that ESPN producers also wanted to cut away to a 25-minute vitamin-products infomercial before bringing Northwest viewers the Holiday Bowl, shown in its entirety minus most of the first quarter.
The inevitable story line for broadcasters began and ended with quarterback Jake Locker. During the run-up to the bowl it seemed as though the entire nation had become something of a Locker room, what with a lengthy New York Times piece midweek about the Husky leader, who appeared in his final UW game.
The Holiday Bowl became something of a synthesis of Locker's half-decade college career (he suited up in 2006 but didn't play). Against Nebraska he was great at times, especially during a third-quarter 25-yard touchdown dash; he was lousy on occasions, completing just five of his 16 passing attempts. And, alas, the injury-riddled star left the game for a second-quarter possession after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit diving for a first down.
Fans basking in the win no doubt are less inclined to be preoccupied with the future fortunes of Locker and other worthy seniors such as the great tackler Mason Foster. Greater concern is reserved for the future of the Sark era.
In that sense, finishing the season with four victories signals a return to Husky-football normalcy, if not quite the majesty of the Don James era. Assuming key Husky players return and core roster members improve, the Dawgs at least should be competitive in an expanding conference of solid programs. That in itself ought to be worth savoring, especially for fans who obviously remember the depths of bowl-ineligibility: the 0-12 2008 season.