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Originally published November 26, 2011 at 10:35 PM | Page modified November 26, 2011 at 10:49 PM

Jerry Brewer

Washington rediscovers its joy in Apple Cup victory

After losing three straight, the Huskies responded in the rivalry game with familiar flair and energy. More than the Apple Cup, more than pride, the Huskies were most appreciative to win back one thing — their joy.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Before the Washington Huskies hoisted the Apple Cup, they dumped their burden. It's hard to determine what they celebrated more: victory or relief. They were giddy about receiving both after bullying their rival once again.

It would've been a crazy thought a month ago, but a team that began the season with a 6-2 record desperately needed this season finale for validation. November had been a wreck. The Huskies had lost three straight games and looked progressively awful with each defeat. Now, they had one game to ensure they would finish with a winning record.

They looked within themselves. The players held a team meeting, no coaches allowed. They searched and searched, trying to figure out two things: Why weren't they executing? And, most vexing of all, why weren't they having fun anymore?

On Saturday, they found an elixir: an intense competition with Washington State. If the Cougars couldn't spark them, nothing could. The Huskies responded by playing with familiar flair and energy.

The result was a 38-21 triumph at CenturyLink Field before an announced crowd of 64,559. More than the Apple Cup, more than pride, the Huskies were most appreciative to win back one thing — their joy.

"That's what this was all about — joy," said safety Sean Parker, who had a key fourth-quarter interception. "We haven't felt like this in a long time. It feels so good. We got that monkey off our shoulders. We haven't celebrated in a long time."

In a football season, three weeks feels like three years. In losses to Oregon, USC and Oregon State, the Huskies lost themselves, and they nearly lost the progress they had made this season.

Now, though, they can say, without blinking, that they had a good season. It wasn't as good as it should have been. They had a legitimate shot at eight victories. But though they settled for 7-5, the rebuilding Huskies clinched the program's second straight winning season. It's nothing spectacular when factoring in the program's tradition, but it's a step forward when considering five straight losing seasons preceded this mini-breakthrough.

This Apple Cup victory validated Year 3 of coach Steve Sarkisian's tenure.

"This has been, obviously, a long month for us," Sarkisian said.

But ...

"We're getting better," the coach added. "I know sometimes there are days and weeks when it doesn't seem like it. But it's a process, and that's where our resiliency has to come in. I can't wait until I'm old and retired and I get to write a book about this process. It's a fascinating one."

After a 5-1 start, the Huskies had an incredible opportunity to make a stunning third-year statement. Instead, they wound up only one game better in the regular season than they were in 2010. The difference, though, is that this team played from ahead all season. A year ago, the Huskies were 3-6 and had to win four epic games to make something of their season.

The regular season ends without a victory over a Top 25 team. They lost to four ranked foes by an average of 24.3 points. They beat just two teams assured of bowl bids (Utah and California), but it's possible that Hawaii will become a third.

It's not a stellar résumé. Then again, the Huskies haven't arrived yet, not by any means. They're still developing. But this should be the last year that keeping their heads just above the water is cause for compliment.

If nothing else, the Huskies finished the way they began — with confidence and enthusiasm. Their defense had a solid game. Their offense found itself. Despite playing on a bum knee, quarterback Keith Price played one of his best games, throwing for 291 yards and three touchdowns and setting a school record with 29 touchdown passes this season.

"This meant everything," said running back Chris Polk, who had 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns. "You want to continue to get better each year. We just wanted to get that bad taste out of our mouths."

The Huskies don't exactly take a direct path to success, but they're a winning team. They're one of the most imperfect winning teams in the nation, but they're winning.

For now, they can take pride in that. But first, they probably should exhale.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer

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