Defense leads the way for Huskies

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SAN DIEGO — Against a team famed for its black-shirt defense, it was the one actually wearing black shirts Thursday night — the Washington Huskies — that lived up to the name.

In a shocking reversal of Nebraska’s rout of Washington in Seattle in September, the Huskies pushed, shoved and knocked the Cornhuskers all over the Qualcomm Stadium field to take a 19-7 victory in the 33rd annual Holiday Bowl.

And they did it with a dominating defense that had been motivated to make up for a disastrous showing in allowing 56 points and 383 rushing yards to the Cornhuskers in September.

“They were embarrassed the first time,” UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt said of his players. “And they just said it wasn’t us that first game. We weren’t ready to play, I didn’t get them ready to play. But they were ready to play (this game), and this is what happens.”

Indeed they were ready, never letting Nebraska’s vaunted rushing attack — which had averaged 259 yards, fifth in the nation — to get going. The Huskies simply won the battles up front all night.

Nebraska had just 189 total yards, and only 91 yards rushing as the Huskies were in total control.

“I felt like we had definitely got better throughout the season,” said linebacker Mason Foster, named the defensive most valuable player. “We knew we had to be more physical in the run game and get them into pass situations and we would be all right. I just felt like everybody played extremely hard all night across the board. We just wanted to win this game really bad.”

Washington also forced two turnovers, one leading to a first-quarter touchdown that gave the Huskies — wearing their all-black jerseys for the second time — a lead they never relinquished. And they used a punishing rushing attack on offense led by Chris Polk, who finished with 177 yards and went over 100 yards for the sixth time this year, to mount just enough offense.

It was the first time Washington had won four consecutive games since the first four of the 2001 season, and was the first time the Huskies, at 7-6, finished with a winning record since 2002.

And all of it marked maybe the most vivid sign yet of the progress of the UW program in the second year under coach Steve Sarkisian.

“I really can’t believe two years ago we were an 0-12 team,” Polk said.

Washington entered the game as a 14-point underdog and after Nebraska’s big victory the first time around, many national analysts pegged this game as one of least appealing of the 35 bowls.

Many also questioned whether Nebraska’s motivation might be waning playing in a bowl game it had won a year ago in beating Arizona and now against a team it had already beaten this season.

And while he didn’t put up spectacular stats, the game provided a fitting ending for quarterback Jake Locker, who can now say he turned UW back into a winning program.

“He came back for this moment, and to experience this moment is why we coach,” Sarkisian said.

The Washington defense set the tone from the start.

On Nebraska’s first possession, UW linebacker Victor Aiyewa forced a fumble by Rex Burkhead as Burkhead played quarterback in a wildcat formation. Alameda Ta’amu recovered for UW and returned it to the 21.

“We had a chip on our shoulder tonight,” said linebacker Cort Dennison. “We got spanked pretty good in Washington, and everybody wrote us off.”

On UW’s first play, halfback Jesse Callier hit Locker with a 16-yard pass and Polk scored two plays later to put the Huskies ahead 7-0.

Nebraska scored on a pass to close it to 10-7 midway through the second quarter, and the Huskies then had a scare thrown into them on their next possession as Locker was hit hard by two Nebraska defenders following a 3-yard run and was left lying motionless on the turf. After several minutes, he eventually left under his own power and was cleared to play for the next series.

Locker explained later he had just had his helmet pulled over his eyes, making him momentarily unable to see.

The second half began the same the first half, with UW making the key plays at the key times.

On UW’s first possession, Locker hit D’Andre Goodwin for a 25-yard gain on third down in the face of a Nebraska blitz. It was Locker’s first completion of the game, and he then ran 25 yards for a score on the next play, plowing through Cornhuskers All-American cornerback Prince Amukamara in the process. That made it 17-7.

A safety off a holding call in the fourth quarter basically sealed the deal — and made it fitting that the defense scored the final points of a game it dominated from the start.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or

What a turnaround
Washington’s defense made an impressive improvement in the Holiday Bowl compared to its ugly Sept. 18 loss to Nebraska at home.
Statistic Sept. 18 Bowl
Total yards allowed 533 189
Rushing yards allowed 383 91
Passing yards allowed 150 98
First downs allowed 21 14