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.
Thursday night, the Huskies never let Nebraska’s vaunted rushing attack — which had averaged 259 yards, fifth in the nation — get going. The Huskies simply won the battles up front all night. Nebraska had just 185 yards, and only 87 rushing, as the Huskies were in total control.
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 had 177 yards and rushed for more than 100 yards for the sixth time this year, to mount just enough offense to get the victory.
Washington entered the game as a 14-point underdog and because of Nebraska’s big victory the first time around, many national analysts pegged the 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.
But while there was no doubt the Huskies appeared to want it more, it would be unfair to say that was the whole reason for the turnaround as UW simply played harder, smarter and better from start to finish.
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 the Huskies into a winning program as Washington finishes the season 7-6.
It was the first time UW had won four consecutive games since the first four of the 2001 season, and was the Huskies’ first 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.
Washington had been left by many for dead after falling to 3-6 at mid-season. But three consecutive victories — all tight games the Huskies pulled out with stellar fourth-quarter play — got UW to the Holiday Bowl, and the Huskies made the most of their opportunity.
The defense set the tone from the start.
On Nebraska’s first possession, UW linebacker Victor Aiyewa forced a fumble by Rex Burkhead as he played quarterback in a Wildcat formation. Alameda Ta’amu recovered the fumble and returned it to the 21.
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.
UW didn’t allow a play of longer than 20 yards in the first half and forced three punts and two turnovers.
A 34-yard drive fueled by runs by Locker and Polk set up a 39-yard field goal by Erik Folk with 1:29 left in the first quarter to make it 10-0.
Nebraska then used a 20-yard run by Taylor Martinez, coupled with a personal foul on a late hit by Nate Fellner, to move into scoring position early in the second quarter.
On third down at the 15, Martinez lofted a pass into the end zone that UW’s Taz Stevenson misjudged, allowing Kyler Reed to grab it for a touchdown to cut UW’s lead to 10-7 with 10:24 left.
The Huskies had a scare thrown into them on their next possession as Locker was hit hard by two Nebraska defenders following a 3-yard run, then lay motionless on the turf. After several minutes, he eventually left under his own power and was cleared to play for the next series. Sarkisian said in a television interview that Locker had momentarily been knocked woozy.
Keith Price finished out the drive, which was stopped when Polk was held to no gain on a fourth-and-one.
The Huskies failed on a chance to break the game open on the first play of the fourth quarter when Polk was stopped at the 1 on fourth-and-goal. But a holding call drawn in the end zone by Ta’amu three plays later resulted in a safety.