In 42-31 triumph over Arizona, Polk scores five TDs and makes Huskies bowl-eligible, something that didn’t look plausible after a crushing defeat at Stanford.
Overthrows. Broken routes. Penalties. Lousy defensive calls. Busts on defensive execution.
For a look at what a Chris Polk hangover looks like, find some Arizona defenders from Saturday night.
The junior running back ran over the Wildcat for 144 yards rushing, ran past them for 100 yards in receptions — the first player in school history to hit triple figures for both in a single game — and scored five touchdowns.
Polk was the cure for the Stanford hangover. The hair of the Dawg.
He had plenty of help — including from Washington’s defense, heretofore the most maligned target since the economy of Greece — but when a number of things were going wrong for the Huskies, they turned the game over to him and rode him to a 42-31 victory that made them bowl eligible with a sixth win.
“He’s arguably the most complete back I’ve seen,” said Steve Sarkisian, former assistant coach at Tailback U., now head coach at Washington. “Other guys are faster, bigger, run between the tackles better, or are better around the edge.
But as far as overall play, he’s the best.”
Then he paid him another tribute that has less to with history than the here and now.
“I don’t know if any other player,” he said, “has had more impact on the progress that we’ve made here.”
A throwback to the Don James-era toughness that longtime alums so crave, Polk scored on runs of 1, 1, 2 and 5 yards, and caught a touchdown pass of 17 yards from quarterback Keith Price — one of four receptions for 100 yards. He rushed 34 times for 144 yards. Another way to look at the last two numbers is with two more numbers: 6 for 6. That’s how many times the Huskies reached the red zone, and how many times they scored touchdowns.
A steady, grinding running game is how USC has done it for so many years, and what Sarkisian seeks to replicate in Seattle. To be able to run between the tackles for those short touchdowns is a large asset, because when things flounder elsewhere — as things did early when Washington was down 10-0 — they simply could give the ball to Polk to eat yards and clock until they figure things out.
Sarkisian said the Huskies were “out of sorts” early — including one astonishing first-quarter play in which three different defensive penalties were called on UW — and led only 14-13 at the half. They were even down early in the fourth quarter, 31-28, to an Arizona team (2-6) that had the offensive firepower to win behind certain pro QB Nick Foles (were you watching, Seahawks fans?).
That’s when the defense kicked in. Arizona’s final four possessions ended this way: Punt, fumble, interception, interception.
Relative to the 615 yards and 65 points given up in the humiliation against Stanford, the achievement was noteworthy, if not salutary. The Wildcats offense scored 23 points — one TD was defensive, a wild, 91-yard interception return — and had 424 yards of offense, 50 below their average.
Not spectacular, but enough. There were times when defense was terrible — the amount of whiffed tackles times the number of tacklers dragged five yards nearly equaled a debacle — but this time they took more risks with blitzes and man coverage. It paid off.
Nothing, however, paid off like Polk.
“Anyone could have done this with the play calls and line blocking I got,” said Polk afterward. “We executed to perfection.”
Charming as was the self-effacement, it wasn’t working with Arizona’s interim coach, Tim Kish, who replaced the fired martinet, Mike Stoops, two weeks ago.
“He’s good — he’s a dynamic back, strong, physical,” Kish said. “He just runs downhill so well.”
Asked where he would rate his game Saturday, Polk put it third, behind the final two games of 2010 — the Apple Cup win over Washington State when he ran for 284 yards, and the Holiday Bowl triumph over Nebraska, avenging a huge regular-season loss.
His 18th career 100-yard game broke the school record held by Napoleon Kaufman, and he became the fifth Husky with four or more rushing touchdowns in a game, the most recent in 1996 when Corey Dillon had five.
Reaching the bowl threshold was a big deal for Sarkisian, because the trip is a reward for the athletic department and boosters — and because it was done in the eighth week, before games against heavily favored Oregon and USC.
But it wasn’t quite as big a deal to Polk.
“It means a lot, but it still isn’t our main thing,” he said.
What, then, is the Huskies’ main thing?
“To be 100 percent assignment correct.”
That’s a remark nearly as rare as his football ability.