Blood trickled out of Jake Locker’s left nostril postgame on Sunday, a tangible show of guts.
Locker accounted for 68 of 79 yards gained on Washington’s final drive, keying a legacy building 16-13 win over Cal for Washington’s most scrutinized son.
A trend over the past two weeks, each producing a win: Locker runs desperate when necessary.
Gone is the 15 carry game. His senior season winding down, Locker tucks and runs with force late. He’s hobbled by a broken rib, yet threw, ran, dragged the Huskies to a victory on Saturday to close Cal’s Memorial Stadium. Washington’s bowl hopes elevated from dire to likely thanks to the consecutive victories the last two weeks. Determining what level of final burst this season will have happens when the Huskies (5-6) head to Pullman.
The scenario awaits because Washington coach Steve Sarkisian opted to go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal with two seconds left in the game. Washington trailed 13-10 and failed to slam the ball across the line in three previous tries. The ball sat on the 1-yard line when Sarkisian called his final timeout.
He summoned the team, then sent out his lieges. Chris Polk was the selection. The redshirt sophomore running back received the handoff from Locker, who failed to convert back-to-back quarterback sneaks from the one, then zipped over the right side. Bedlam.
“I would have been shocked if (Sarkisian) would have kicked the field goal there,” Locker said. “I felt like we had a lot of momentum. I felt like guys were pissed off as a whole, each guy mad at himself individually, for not getting it in on first, second or third down.”
Sarkisian mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half. He’s carried an aggressive play-calling style from USC, attempting to apply it to a less talented team. At times, it was in error. Saturday, his ambitious decision paid. No word on how much the airline will charge him to check his ample chutzpah for the flight home. Sarkisian said he never hesitated.
“I was surprised we didn’t score on the very first sneak,” Sarkisian said. “So we came back with it again out of a formation that I was hopefully going to get an idea of what it would look like (on fourth down). So when we sneaked it on the second one, they were really piled in the A-gaps and the four-point stances so we knew exactly what we were going to do.”
The final drive — 10 plays, 79 yards, the final 4:39 off the clock — was full force Locker. He showed arm strength when throwing deep; he sprinted left and right, gaining large chunks. This salivary gland inspiration viewed in the past prompted pundits to place Locker on top of draft boards.
Sarkisian and Locker talked it over prior to the last drive. The quarterback was going to run, throw or block, if that’s what it took. During the last series, Locker received a whack. He tried to scramble up from the ground, but momentarily had to crawl with a grimace. He stuck it out.
“That was our shot, and we were going to see what happened,” Sarkisian said.
The ideal came at the end. Prior, Locker struggled. He threw an interception, had another likely pick dropped. When sophomore lineman Daniel Kanczugowski never touched the man he was supposed to block, Locker was stripped of the ball. Cal’s Cameron Jordan picked it up for a 21-yard touchdown, the Bears’ lone of the day.
His stat line will show an 80-yard touchdown pass, but that play was made by wide receiver D’Andre Goodwin who tapped a poor pass away from the defensive back prior to snagging it and taking off. Jermaine Kearse’s 46-yard reception on the final drive also turned a mediocre pass into a large gain. Locker’s wide receivers helped him twice on Saturday. It had been a while.
Washington’s defense slowed Cal running back Shane Vereen after a foreboding start. Vereen appeared in line for a 200-yard day until Washington, and Cal, realized how ineffective Bears quarterback Brock Mansion was. Mansion was the tepid combination of inaccurate and immobile.
Now the view shifts across the state. A trip along I-90 will determine more than the Apple Cup victor. Sarkisian, Locker, they have the ethereal on the line. A win and Locker’s career, no matter draft selection, twists toward an expansive positive. Sarkisian will produce a .500 regular season and bowl game berth just two years after the program was winless.
Those chances exist because of Saturday’s blood, guts and balls. Memorial Stadium, indeed.