And it was Chris Polk that carried them to a bowl berth with a dynamic performance to lead the Huskies to a 35-28 win over the Cougars in an exciting 103rd annual Apple Cup that wasn't decided until the final minute.
PULLMAN — Chris Polk vowed that he was going to carry each and every Washington State defender as far as necessary to capture the Apple Cup.
“I wasn’t going to get stopped,” said the UW sophomore running back. “Even if I had to take on their whole defense, I wasn’t going to get stopped.”
And in the process of running through the WSU defense, Polk also hauled the Washington Huskies to San Diego or San Antonio.
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Polk rushed for 284 yards, the second-best total in both UW and Apple Cup history, as the Huskies took a hard-fought 35-28 win over the Cougars in the 103rd playing of the rivalry game.
UW improved to 6-6 in front of 30,157 at Martin Stadium and assured itself a spot in a bowl, either the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29 in San Antonio or the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30 in San Diego. That decision will come Sunday, though the Huskies are just glad they are going somewhere after seven seasons of being home for the holidays.
The win was UW’s fourth in the last minute or final play this year, not assured until Jake Locker threw a 27-yard pass to Jermaine Kearse with 44 seconds left after WSU had scored 14 fourth-quarter points to tie the score at 28.
“When things got hard, we were able to pull through,” said UW linebacker Cort Dennison. “And now we get to go bowling, and there’s not a better feeling.”
The win was UW’s third in a row after the Huskies fell to 3-6, leaving most thinking a bowl seemed bleak.
But UW beat UCLA, California and then the Cougars, the last two on the road, to get to the postseason for the first time since 2002.
When it was over, the Huskies erupted in a raucous celebration, many remembering how they had left this same field two years ago with a devastating loss that was the bottoming out of an 0-12 season.
“It’s very rewarding for me to see that in there,” said UW coach Steve Sarkisian, pointing to the happy locker room and remembering it was two years ago this week that he accepted the job at Washington.
“Yeah, there is some celebration that we are going to a bowl game, but the bulk of the celebration is that we won the Apple Cup in really cool fashion.”
Indeed, Sarkisian tried to keep the Cup, and not a possible bowl berth, as the focal point this week, and the Huskies came out looking they were prepared to run away with it.
Polk had 54 yards on UW’s first drive as the Huskies jumped to a 7-0 lead. UW made it 14-0 midway through the second quarter when a fake punt helped lead to a 7-yard Locker touchdown.
But a Locker interception in the end zone helped lead to a quick WSU score in the final minute of the second quarter to make it 14-7 at halftime.
“We could have really taken the game away,” Sarkisian said of a number of blown opportunities in the first half.
Locker, though, hit Kearse on a 66-yard pass and run on the first possession of the third quarter to put UW ahead 21-7 and quell WSU’s momentum. The Cougars, though, kept fighting back, and made it 21-14 later in the third as quarterback Jeff Tuel (who threw for 298 yards) got hot.
Locker fumbled a fourth-and-goal play at the WSU 1 on the first play of the fourth quarter. But the Cougars couldn’t turn the gift into a score, and Polk ran 57 yards for a TD with 13:18 left that again put UW up by 14 points and appeared to salt the game away.
Tuel, however, led two more quick scoring drives, and a 16-yard pass to Marquess Wilson tied it with 4:26 left.
UW then took over at its 12, a similar feeling to last week when it had to march 79 yards in the final 4:39 to beat Cal.
After a Locker rushing first down, Polk ran 36 yards to the WSU 40. Then, after Sarkisian thought about going for a field goal with a fourth-and-one at the 31, he reconsidered after calling a timeout. Polk ran for 15 to the Cougars 16, the last of his career-high 29 carries.
“We were going to make sure that we ran that football tonight,” said Sarkisian, saying his sheet of play calls read “pound that rock.”
After a penalty moved UW back, Locker saw Kearse getting man-to-man press coverage and threw a fade pass that Kearse caught near the sideline for the winning score.
The Cougars finish 2-10 and are 5-32 in three years under coach Paul Wulff, whose status is uncertain.
For the first time in eight years, the Huskies know what their immediate future holds — a trip to somewhere warm in late December.
“It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t pretty at times,” Locker said of the three-game winning streak that clinched the bid. “But the guys kept fighting and believing in each other and this is the result we got, so it’s awesome.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org