Lucky or good? Huskies have made a habit of winning the close ones
Washington has won its past seven games decided by eights points or fewer, including three already this season.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Winning the close onesThe Huskies have won seven in a row in games decided by eight points or fewer.
Oct. 2, 2010: at USC, 32-31. Erik Folk kicks a 32-yard field goal on last play of the game.
Oct. 16, 2010: Oregon State, 35-34 (2 OT). OSU goes for two after scoring in second OT but pass to Joe Halahuni falls incomplete.
Nov. 27, 2010: at Cal, 16-13. Chris Polk scores TD on fourth down on last play to cap 10-play, 79-yard drive in final 4:39.
Dec. 4, 2010: at Washington State, 35-28. Jermaine Kearse scores winning TD on 27-yard pass from Jake Locker with 44 seconds left.
Sept. 3, 2011: Eastern Washington, 30-27. Desmond Trufant picks off pass in end zone with 29 seconds remaining.
Sept. 10, 2011: Hawaii, 40-32. Warriors score TD with 1:39 left but Huskies block PAT and return it to score two points and then recover onside kick to seal win.
Sept. 24, 2011: California, 31-23. Huskies stop Cal on four plays from the 2-yard line, the final play ending with 21 seconds left.
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Lucky or good?
That's the inescapable question that hovers over any sports team that shows a sudden knack for winning the close ones.
The latest local example is the Washington Huskies, whose 31-23 win over California on Saturday was their seventh straight victory in games decided by eight points or fewer.
Of those seven, six came with UW either scoring in the final minute or making a defensive stop in the final minute. Three came on the final play — one-point wins last year against USC and Oregon State and a three-pointer at California.
Compared to those games, Saturday was a relative breather as UW kept Cal out of the end zone on four attempts from the 2-yard-line with a possible chance to tie, finally ending the drive and the suspense with 21 seconds left.
Washington's current streak of winning the close ones is the longest for the school since the 2000 and 2001 teams won 10 in a row by eight points or fewer.
Coach Steve Sarkisian says it's simply a matter of preparation.
"We preach it quite a bit, that this is where we expect to be," he said this week. "We expect to be in tight ballgames in the fourth quarter and we know how to handle them. We know how to execute in those stressful moments and our kids really respond. They believe they're going to perform well in those stressful moments, and we pride ourselves on it. Do I wish all games were close? No. I wish we could win one by a couple of touchdowns, maybe. But until we're good enough to get to that point I'm glad that we know how to win in those tight ballgames."
Sarkisian notes that UW practices two-minute drill, end-of-game situations regularly, with a special emphasis on Monday and Friday each week.
"(We) keep trying to put them in different scenarios so that when those moments come up in ballgames they feel comfortable," Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian has put such an importance on it that midway through last year he handed out T-shirts to the players with the word "Finish," a mantra players bring up repeatedly when asked about their late-game success.
"That's basically what our program is based around," said safety Justin Glenn. "Whatever it is, whatever you are doing, you've got to finish."
But is it really just that easy — a slogan on a T-shirt?
The reality is that every team practices two-minute drills and has some sort of motivational saying it rallies around when the going gets tough — some teams just pull it off better than others.
The Huskies under Tyrone Willingham also often talked about the importance of finishing, but instead went 3-15 in games decided by eight points or less in his four-year tenure, losing their final eight games by that margin in the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
At some point, slogans go out the window and it comes down to making plays.
One edge for the Huskies in that regard the past few years has been having a reliable kicker. Erik Folk proved the difference in the game that started the streak, a 32-31 win at USC a year ago when he made a last-second field goal a few minutes after the Trojans had missed a short one.
And some of their biggest names have come up with some of their biggest plays when it's mattered most — Jake Locker's throws to Jermaine Kearse to beat Oregon State and WSU last year; Chris Polk's last-play TD to beat Cal; Desmond Trufant's last-minute interception to hold off Eastern Washington in the opener this year.
A little good fortune hasn't hurt — what if Matt Barkley didn't miss open receivers late in the USC game last year, or Oregon State completed that two-point pass into the end zone?
The Huskies, though, don't bother themselves much with the what-ifs, having come to expect that it will all work out at the end because it so often has.
"Doing it once builds confidence," said linebacker Cort Dennison. "It makes us realize we have done it once and that we can do it again."
Last week, as the nerves of fans grew increasingly frayed as Cal marched 85 yards in 3:58 to get to the 2-yard line, UW players say they felt nothing but calm.
"Why would you be nervous?" asked Glenn. "You are doing what you've done your whole life. You are having fun and just playing football."
Dennison said he looked around the defensive huddle and didn't sense a moment of doubt.
"I never see any panic," he said. "I just see a look that you get from someone that you know they are ready to buckle down and make the most of the situation. You just see that drive in someone's face. That's the look I get."
• The Huskies can take 70 players to Utah and among those who will make the trip is linebacker John Timu, who suffered a neck injury in the Cal game and was taken off the field via ambulance. He's been limited in practice this week, however, so Jamaal Kearse is expected to start.
• Safety Taz Stevenson (knee) won't be available. But RB Jesse Callier, who was limited earlier in the week with a hamstring injury, is on the mend and should be able to play, Sarkisian said.
• Defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who suffered a foot injury Wednesday, practiced on Thursday and looked "a lot better," Sarkisian said.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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