BY Art Thiel 01:53AM 12/05/2010

Wild win completes UW’s run to a bowl

4th-down guts, Polk’s 284 yards in Apple Cup has UW respectable again

Chris Polk gains 284 yards in Saturday's win over the Cougars in Pullman

Any time a University of Washington football game performance evokes the great Hugh McElhenny, something majestic has taken place.

But Saturday night in Pullman, the individual heroics of running back Chris Polk might have been overshadowed by a breakthrough moment of team achievement:

On the same frigid Martin Stadium field where two years ago the Huskies hit the lowest point in their football history, they earned a bowl bid for the first time in seven years with a triumph in one of the wildest Apple Cups in the rivalry’s 103 editions.

Washington's Chris Polk races to the end zone en route to a TD and a near-record 284-yard rushing performance

This one sprawled all over the Palouse with big plays, big misplays, play calls that were gutsy as well as officiating that was goofy, mind-numbing penalties and mind-bending feats – and postgame melee on the field just because it’s, well, Apple Cup tradition.

The most remarkable aspect of Washington’s 35-28 win over Washington State was not Polk’s 284 yards rushing – second only to All-America choice McElhenny’s 296 yards in the same game 60 years earlier – nor wide receiver’s Jermaine Kearse’s goal-line leap that snagged the winning touchdown, but the decision to go for a first down on fourth-and-1 in the final 90 seconds just a few minutes after a colossal screw-up in the same situation.

Early in the fourth quarter at the Washington State 1-yard line and ahead just 21-14, Washington quarterback Jake (I Came Back This Season For Just This Moment) Locker muffed a fake handoff on a fly sweep and lost the football 10 yards behind him, whereupon the Cougars scooped the fumble and ran it back to midfield.

It looked to have signaled that the heralded career of Locker may have ended bowl-less upon his own ghastly bonehead moment.

But the Huskies defense came up with a stop, after which Polk helped rescue Locker’s tattering image with a 57-yard touchdown burst and a 28-14 lead.

The second fourth-and-1 moment came with the game tied at 28 with 1:21 remaining and the ball at the WSU 30. This time, after the first debacle, UW coach Steve Sarkisian sent out the field goal team, and seemed wise to do so, even if it would be a 47-yard attempt.

Then he called a timeout. Was he icing his own kicker?

“I considered the field goal really hard,” Sarkisian told KJR radio. “But I really believed in the way we were playing (along the offensive line), almost manhandling them.”

He pulled off the field goal team and called upon God. Sorta.

A week earlier the Huskies beat Cal in Berkeley 16-13 in the game’s final moment when Sarkisian gave the ball to Polk on what is known in football-ese as “God’s play,” a basic tailback dive power play to the right that every team has to master to be successful.

Replay time.

Saturday, “God’s play” went for 15 yards and the first down. One play later, Locker redeemed himself.

He slung a perfect ball along the sideline to Kearse, who soared over a lone defender at the 2-yard line for the catch and came down with both feet in the end zone for the 27 yards that virtually clinched a week in the sun at either the Holiday Bowl in San Diego or the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

“We’ve talked since training camp that the last two games of the season, on the road at Cal and at Washington State, would define us as a football team,” Sarkisian said, explaining his decision to pass on the field goal. “We defined this team as resilient and mentally tough.”

How long has it been since such a thing could be said legitimately about a UW football team? The decline can be traced back to that August day in 1993 when Don James quit over Pac-10 sanctions for breaking conference and NCAA rules. There have been winning seasons and bowl games since, but through Jim Lambright to Rick Neuheisel to Keith Gilbertson to Tyrone Willingham, the circling of the drain grew more rapid.

After Willingham was fired in the 0-12 debacle, which concluded with a 16-13 loss in double overtime to the Cougs, that brought Sarkisian to the coaching spot. He claimed the returning Washington to respectability “won’t take that long.”

While skepticism is fair regarding a 6-6 mark, there is no doubt that Washington won the three consecutive games – UCLA at home and Cal and WSU on the road – it had to win to become bowl-eligible. And it won four Pac-10 games in the final minute.

While they were no match for Stanford, Oregon and Arizona – the first two arguably the best teams in the country – they found themselves about even with the rest of the Pac-10. That qualifies as respectable.

In the eyes of Locker, it was much more than that.

“I’m so proud,” he told KJR, “to be part of this program.”

Been awhile since that was said, too.

BEST APPLE CUP RUSHING PERFORMANCES

Year Player School Yards
1950 Hugh McElhenny UW 296
2010 Chris Polk UW 284
1955 Credell Green UW 258
1974 Denny Fitzpatrick UW 249
1995 Rashaan Shehee UW 212
2005 Jerome Harrison WSU 207
1976 Ron Rowland UW 196
1978 Joe Steele UW 193
1992 S. Wright-Fair WSU 193
1993 N. Kaufman UW 181
1986 Vince Weathersby UW 177
1952 Charles Beckel WSU 176
1997 Michael Black WSU 170
1983 Kerry Porter WSU 169
1985 Rueben Mayes WSU 167
1984 Rueben Mayes WSU 165
1988 Rich Swinton WSU 160
1984 Jacque Robinson UW 160

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