SAN DIEGO – Two years removed from a 0-12 season, the University of Washington football team is used to being an underdog.
Just not this big of one.
For only the second time this season, the Huskies will face a team that Las Vegas considers a double-digit favorite when UW plays Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl on Thursday night. The Cornhuskers have already beaten the Huskies by 35 points, 56-21 in September, so the 14-point spread is actually somewhat conservative.
The University of Connecticut, as a 17-point underdog to Oklahoma in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, is the only team that’s being given longer odds than UW. The last time the Huskies were a double-digit underdog was heading into a Nov. 6 game against an Oregon team favored by 37 1/2 points – the Ducks won that game 53-16.
While the Huskies (6-6) aren’t paying attention to the odds, they certainly know their role coming into the bowl game.
“I guess I like being the underdog,” junior defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu said. “I like surprises.”
Coach Steve Sarkisian was being only half-serious when told of his team’s underdog status this week and responding: “We are?” He knows just how low the expectations are for his team outside the locker room, but isn’t using that as any sort of motivation heading into the game against 17th-ranked Nebraska (10-3).
“I don’t really concern myself with it, whether we’re a favorite or an underdog,” Sarkisian said. “That part doesn’t really matter. You have to go out and play a football game.”
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was in a similar state of mind Tuesday, despite his team’s role as Goliath.
“What happened in the past, that will have no bearing on what will happen in this game,” he said after a practice that featured a loose Nebraska team practicing end-zone celebrations.
Nebraska’s status as a heavy favorite is well-deserved, and not just because of the way the September game went. In four games against top-15 opponents this season, UW has gone 0-4 and been outscored 194-51 – an average margin of more than 35 points per game. The Huskies also have the worst scoring margin in games this year (265-374) among all 70 teams involved in bowl games and are the first .500 team to play in the Holiday Bowl.
The disparity in participants may well be a factor in ticket sales, which are slightly down this year. Holiday Bowl executive director Bruce Binkowski said Tuesday that 59,331 tickets had been sold in the 66,000-seat Qualcomm Stadium, adding that Nebraska fans purchased only about 9,000 of their 11,000-ticket allotment.
In an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star earlier this month, Nebraska spokesperson Randy York said the rematch and Nebraska’s second consecutive trip to the Holiday Bowl were factors in low ticket sales.
“People don’t want to spend a lot of money to see the same team we beat the first time,” York told the Journal Star.
Binkowski said ticket sales are “a little down” from last year but that it was “nothing dramatic.” He added that UW fans were quick to buy up their allotted tickets and explained that the bowl committee had little choice but to schedule the rematch.
As the only remaining Pac-10 qualifier, Washington was automatically slotted to the Holiday Bowl. After the Insight Bowl chose Missouri over Nebraska among Big 12 teams, Holiday Bowl organizers had little choice.
“How do you not take Nebraska?” Binkowski said. “I understand they played Washington before, but Nebraska is going to the Big Ten next year and we’ll never see them again. So it was a no-brainer.”
Binkowski added that Big 12 teams rarely sell out their allotment of Holiday Bowl tickets, with the exception of Nebraska in 1998 and 2009. UW carried on a long tradition of Pac-10 interest.
“They’re fired up to be here,” he said. “On the one hand, yeah, they’re a 6-6 team. But they won their last three games and are excited to be here. Remember why we’re here – it’s not only for the student-athletes and the schools but also for the fans.”
Based on a meeting between these two programs a little more than three months ago, the fans might not be in for the most competitive game. But Binkowski is among those who are hoping this seemingly one-sided matchup makes for a more intriguing game than expected.
“Who knows?” he said. “From what I hear, Washington is not the same team as they were when they got blown out. It’s a chance of redemption. So who knows?
“It could be one of those typical Holiday Bowl thrillers. We hope so.”
Pelini said quarterback Taylor Martinez (ankle) will start Thursday. … The Huskies will be without DE Talia Crichton (knee) and safety Sean Parker (stinger), but Sarkisian said he expects to have holder Cody Bruns (broken clavicle) and guard Ryan Tolar (knee).