Resilient Huskies on their way back
With a 35-28 victory over the Cougars at Martin Stadium, the Huskies (6-6) accomplished the most invigorating .500 season in school history.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The Huskies could play in the Alamo or Holiday bowls. Selections come Sunday, with BCS bowls at 6 p.m., ESPN.
PULLMAN — The star running back, who tore up his shoulder during a winless season two years ago, is getting mobbed by smiling, purple-clad men and women. He is so happy he can only think to repeat five words again and again.
"I bleed purple and gold!" Chris Polk exclaims. "I bleed purple and gold! I bleed purple and gold!"
Washington fans take over the Martin Stadium field. The band plays celebratory songs. After eight miserable years, the Huskies players dance.
Who knew they had such rhythm?
They did it. Somehow, they did it. Against logic, against their own mistakes and limitations, against a rival that wouldn't quit, the Washington Huskies won the 103rd Apple Cup on Saturday and became eligible to play in their first bowl game since 2002.
They did it with Polk rumbling for a career-high 284 rushing yards, with quarterback Jake Locker fulfilling the primary expectation for his swan season and with a determined team surviving the turbulence of a trying season.
With a 35-28 victory over Washington State, the Huskies (6-6) accomplished the most invigorating .500 season in school history. For a program that once had 27 consecutive seasons of .500 or better, the achievement is historically meager — until you include the context of what the program has been through since the turn of the century.
It has been a long wait, but finally, you can say it.
The Huskies are on their way back.
It's a wait that has lasted eight years and taken the program through four coaches. It's a wait that has spanned 66 depressing losses in 95 games, including the humiliation of a winless 2008 season. It's a wait that has shattered the Huskies' national reputation and tested fan loyalty and left skeptics opining that the program may never rise again.
From Rick Neuheisel's controversial ouster to Keith Gilbertson's disastrous inheritance to Tyrone Willingham's lifeless tenure and now to Steve Sarkisian's spirited reinvention, the program has been through everything. There was the trial over Neuheisel's firing. The bounty to have Willingham fired. The "Suddenly Senior" controversy. The team playing half a season with a coach who had been fired. Everything.
So it's only right that the team to end the misery did so with plenty of drama.
Just a month ago, these Huskies were done. They had a 3-6 record. They had been outscored 138-30 in games against Arizona, Stanford and Oregon. Locker, who delayed NFL millions to return for his senior season, had cracked ribs. UW seemed to be one inevitable loss from a seventh straight losing season.
But that didn't happen. The predicament only strengthened the Huskies' resolve. With no margin for error, UW won its final three games to become bowl eligible. The final two victories will forever brand this team as lovably resilient.
If Polk's game-winning touchdown run last week in the final second against California wasn't dramatic enough, then came this Apple Cup of extraordinary momentum swings.
Every time the Huskies seemingly had a nice lead, the Cougars battled back behind sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel, who threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns. When Washington State tied the game at 28 late in the fourth quarter, you wondered if the Huskies — a team that had already won three games by five combined points this season — had another miracle finish in them.
But Polk churned. Then Locker burned the Cougars with a 27-yard TD pass to a leaping Jermaine Kearse for the decisive score.
At last, Locker's comeback season made sense. At last, all of the struggles of this senior class culminated with a breakthrough. It hasn't been the prettiest season. Blowout losses. Disappointing home defeats. Questionable coaching decisions. But to a man, the Huskies proved to be far more resilient than you could have expected. Fittingly, their legacy rests on an immeasurable trait — mental toughness.
"I couldn't be more proud of this football team," said Sarkisian, who has led this program's swift two-year turnaround. "Two years ago Monday, I met them for the first time. There wasn't a lot of school spirit, lots of heads down. But we can say tonight that we're proud Huskies."
A .500 record never felt so good. The Huskies, who finished tied for third in the Pac-10, now await a certain bowl invitation. The same program that came to Pullman and lost its 11th and most painful game in an 0-12 season two years ago exited Martin Stadium jumping in unison and chanting while hoisting the Apple Cup trophy.
"I think this marks the beginning of the real change," senior safety Nate Williams said. "Now, all of the younger classmen, they expect to make it to a bowl. Pretty soon, it'll be Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl. So this is a historic game. One day, when I'm 80 years old, I'll sit down my grandkids and talk about it. I'm getting the chills right now just thinking about it."
Real change. The drought is over.
Real change. Now the fun begins.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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