SAN DIEGO — A two-touchdown underdog to a team that beat them by five touchdowns earlier in the season came up with one of the great moments in University of Washington football history.
The Huskies (7-6) beat vaunted Nebraska (9-4) at its own game — smash mouth — on the soggy turf of Qualcomm Stadium Thursday to shock the Holiday Bowl and the college football world with a 19-7 triumph over 17th-ranked Cornhuskers.
Led by Mason Foster, defensive player of the game, the UW held mistake-prone Nebraska, which crushed Washington 56-21 Sept. 18 in Seattle, to a single touchdown and 189 total yards of offense (91 yards rushing) after giving up 535 in the first meeting. Nebraska actually had more penalty yards (97) than it did rushing yards or passing yards.
The UW’s careful, creative offense had no turnovers, gave up no sacks and rode Chris Polk’s legs (174 yards on a career-high 34 carries) and quarterback Jake Locker’s savvy to perhaps the most unexpected postseason moment since the Huskies won the 1978 Rose Bowl.
“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Third place in the Pac-10, Holiday Bowl champs. We’re moving in the right direction.
“We hit a little bit of a lull, but we’re on our way back to the brand of football that the Huskies are accustomed to playing.”
In his final college game, Locker had only five completions in 16 attempts and 56 yards passing, but he managed the game well and ran smartly to keep Washington in control.
The rematch proved to be no match. Washington was the aggressor, thrilling the thousands that made the trek for a chilly night (48 degrees at game time was the coldest-ever Holiday Bowl) and Washington’s first bowl game in eight years.
The one shine for Washington in the first game was its ability to run. That was the crux of the game plan Thursday. The Huskies ran 52 times for 274 yards. Polk ran straight ahead. Locker scrambled and used designed runs to gain large chunks.
“We were going to run the ball with a variety of runs,” Sarkisian said. “We knew it would be hard, so we had to have a lot of variety.”
With a 10-7 lead, Locker started the third quarter with a fine pass to D’Andre Goodwin for 25 yards — Locker’s first completion of the evening. He followed with a furious 25-yard sprint for a touchdown and a 17-7 lead. It was the drool-inducing show that has led pundits to claim Locker’s virtues.
Washington finished the third quarter one yard away from the end zone. To open the fourth, Polk was stuffed on fourth-and-goal.
But Nebraska, with its backup quarterback on the field, made yet another mistake, as it did often. Offensive lineman Ricky Henry held Washington defensive lineman Alameda Ta’amu in the end zone. Safety. The lead grew to 19-7 with 13:38 left. Washington increasingly appeared positioned to shock college football.
Another kind of shock had a moment in the second quarter when Locker was hit after a rushing first down and laid face down with the ball still cradled in his left arm. He was hit with a knee to the helmet from Nebraska defensive end Jared Crick. Simultaneously, safety Austin Cassidy put a helmet-to-helmet hit on Locker. He stayed on the ground motionless for an agonizing minute or two.
But he rose and staggered to the sideline. The problem was a twisting of his helmet that jammed over his eyes, momentarily blinding him. Once it was pulled back up, Locker could see again and knew he was fine. He labeled it “worse than it looked.”
Doctors ran tests and assessed him good to return. He snatched his helmet from a trainer and returned for a conservative second quarter. Nebraska, which appeared to have left its brain in the Midwest, came up with a touchdown on a Taylor Martinez pass.
Erik Folk’s 48-yard attempt for Washington to close the half was wide left. Washington clung to a 10-7 lead at the break.
The start was stunning. An aggressive Washington defense whacked Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead over and over. Same went for the Huskers’ Roy Helu Jr. The gouging done in the first meeting was not allowed in this exchange. The two combined for 26 yards on 10 carries.
Burkhead, lined up in the Wildcat, looked to throw, a touch of trickery. But Washington linebacker Victor Aiyewa burst off the line and caused Burkhead to fumble. It was scooped up by 330-pound Ta’amu. The Huskies were in business.
“We didn’t play well front to back,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “It was just a ridiculous performance.”
Washington went to trickery itself. For weeks, a fly sweep to running back Jesse Callier was practiced in which he threw back across the field to Locker. The pass play worked, Nebraska hit Locker late for a penalty, and the Huskies were two yards from a score. Polk ran it in.
Washington tacked on a field goal to hold a stunning 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
“When you’re a competitor, you love realizing that people are doubting you,” Cort Dennison said. “It’s a great win for the program and hopefully we keep the tradition going.”