Without making clutch plays against USC, Oregon State and California, Washington's season could have fallen far short of a 6-6 record and trip to the Holiday Bowl.
Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian says he doesn’t worry about the “what ifs” surrounding play calls and in-game decisions.
“I don’t think you can,” he said a few weeks ago. “You’ve got to go with what your gut tells you and what you believe in.”
And what Sarkisian believes is that it’s usually going to work out.
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So it’s left to pesky media types and worrywart fans to ponder just how close the Washington Huskies were to not finishing 6-6 and not qualifying for their Holiday Bowl game against Nebraska in San Diego on Thursday.
In fact, UW was outscored 374-265 this season, and 275-186 in Pac-10 games, due largely to four losses by 30 points or more (three in the Pac-10) and another by 10 points.
No other team that finished 6-6 or better in a BCS conference was outscored by as wide a margin this season, either overall or in conference play. And no other Pac-10 team that finished with a winning conference record (UW was 5-4) has been outscored by as many points since the conference expanded to 10 teams in 1978.
But the Huskies overcame that overall scoring margin by winning four games by a touchdown or less, three that essentially came down to the final play and another to the final minute.
“The cool part for us is we took advantage of those opportunities, and that’s what got us here,” said quarterback Jake Locker. “That’s something we’re proud of and memories you’ll be able to keep the rest of your life.”
Asked how the Huskies were able to continually rise when matters were most urgent, Locker said: “It was just a will to get to this point and have this opportunity.”
So maybe the explanation is just that simple for how UW kept pulling out the close ones (save for the season opener at Brigham Young), beginning with a 32-31 win at USC in Week 4, a game won on a field goal on the final play by Erik Folk.
The real key, though, might have been an 18-yard completion from Locker to D’Andre Goodwin on a fourth-and-11 play from UW’s 23-yard line with just more than two minutes left. An incompletion there, and UW likely falls to 1-3 and who knows what happens?
Two months later, however, Goodwin says he’s never thought of it that way.
“It might have been the biggest catch I made,” he said. “But I don’t really think about the past. Our coaches teach us to play in the absence of fear, so that’s what we do when we are out there.”
Two weeks later, with UW again in something of a win-or-else situation, the Huskies were locked in an overtime battle with Oregon State. In the second possession of the second overtime, OSU scored to cut the lead to 35-34, then called timeout and decided to go for two instead of kicking the PAT to force a third overtime.
And while running back Jacquizz Rodgers had had a good game — 140 yards on 32 carries — OSU instead threw a pass, Ryan Katz’s throw into the end zone dropped by a diving Joe Halahuni under tight coverage from UW linebacker Cort Dennison. If Halahuni had caught the ball, UW would have fallen to 2-4 heading into a three-game stretch in which it lost all three. Instead, UW evened its mark at 3-3, giving it just enough breathing room.
Dennison says now he was surprised that Rodgers didn’t get the ball, and that he simply read Katz’s eyes on the throw to Halahuni and “just tried to be as disruptive as possible and make his job as hard as possible.”
And if UW is perceived by some to have gotten to a bowl game by the tips of its fingers?
“I think we did everything we had to do to get here,” Dennison responds. “We deserve it.”
The three-game losing skid, however, put UW back on the brink, though a win against UCLA kept the Huskies alive heading to a game Nov. 27 at California.
There, UW trailed 13-10 with just more than four minutes to play when it got the ball at its 21. The game will be remembered forever for “God’s Play,” the 1-yard run by Chris Polk on fourth down as time ran out to give the Huskies a win.
But UW might never have been in position for that play had Locker not completed a 46-yard pass to a diving Kearse on first down from the 34 with just more than two minutes remaining. Before that drive, UW had had just one possession all day that even went as far as 46 yards — a tipped pass that Goodwin turned into an 80-yard touchdown.
Echoing the team theme, however, Kearse said he’s never given a thought to what might have been had he not made that catch.
“I try not to think about those things — what if I didn’t catch it — because then maybe next time I won’t,” he said.
By the time UW scored with 44 seconds left to win the Apple Cup and clinch a Holiday Bowl bid, it almost seemed perfunctory, the Huskies having done it so many times before.
“I think that’s what happens when you prepare like we do and you have that mindset. It’s not about the first three quarters but the last quarter and how you finish,” said Dennison. “When you have that mind-set, good things happen, and that’s what happened.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org