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Cougs stand between UW and bowl

Jermaine Kearse’s sliding 46-yard reception helped set up the Huskies on their winning drive Saturday against California. (Associated Press)
Jermaine Kearse’s sliding 46-yard reception helped set up the Huskies on their winning drive Saturday against California. (Associated Press)

Improved pass defense key to Huskies’ resurgence

PULLMAN – Before the 2010 football season began, the Washington Huskies were something of a darling for prognosticators.

The Sporting News had them as the last team in its top 25. The Huskies received votes in the coaches’ poll and the Associated Press poll, ranked 36th and 39th, respectively.

One unknown voter in the Pac-10 preseason media poll even picked UW to win the conference, though Washington finished sixth when all the votes were tallied.

Then the season started.

The Huskies fell at BYU in their opener. They were crushed by Nebraska at home. Quarterback Jake Locker, tabbed by draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. as the NFL’s No. 1 pick before the season began, saw his star start to fall.

There were a couple upsets – at USC and in double overtime against Oregon State – sandwiched around a home loss to Arizona State.

Then came the disastrous three-week stretch. Losses to Arizona, Stanford and Oregon by a combined score of 138-30. The soul of the team, Locker, injured a rib and missed the Oregon game.

The season, so promising, was spiraling, seemingly ready to shatter like a glass bowl dropped on a tile floor.

UW was 3-6 overall, 2-4 in Pac-10 play, and needed a miracle finish – three consecutive wins, two on the road – to become bowl eligible, something second-year coach Steve Sarkisian nearly guaranteed before the first kickoff.

The Huskies defeated UCLA 24-7 on a Thursday night ESPN game to slow the freefall.

Then Saturday, against a California team that had been tough at home, Washington rallied in the final minutes, scoring the game-winning touchdown – a 1-yard run by Chris Polk – as time expired.

The 16-13 victory served a hundred different purposes. But the two most important were keeping the Huskies’ bowl hopes alive and making Saturday’s Apple Cup even more meaningful.

Now it’s simple for UW. Win Saturday and go to a bowl, possibly even the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

So what has fueled the remarkable late-season turnaround? The defense, mainly the pass defense.

After the three-game blowout streak, UW was 110th nationally in total defense, giving up 440 yards per game. The Huskies were also 71st against the pass, with half of their total coming through the air.

This week they are 85th in total defense and 31st against the pass, dropping almost 27 yards off their season average in just two weeks.

“Really that’s been one of the biggest differences is now our corners are legit, they are playing like legit corners,” defensive coordinator Nick Holt said after the Cal win, referring to Desmond Trufant and Quinton Richardson.

Richardson, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior, came up big against the Bears with a key interception, which just emphasized Holt’s assessment earlier in the week.

“The last couple weeks, he’s been really doing a good job,” Holt said. “He’s probably our most improved player on defense.”

With the victories, Washington is nearly back where it expected to be before the season began. One more win and Sarkisian’s talk of a bowl game will sound prescient.

“You can’t win all three without winning this one, so to get this win keeps our season alive, allows us to go into Pullman next weekend and compete for something that we haven’t been able to do in a long time now,” Locker said Saturday.

“It’s exciting. It’s right where we want to be as a football team.”

Only well-rested Washington State, 2-9, 1-7 in Pac-10 play after a 31-14 road win over Oregon State two weeks ago, stands in the way.

“They’re not going to want us to go to a bowl game, so they’re going to bring their A-game,” said Polk, who had a hand in last season’s 30-0 Husky win in Seattle with 130 yards rushing and a touchdown. “They want to be able to say they took our bowl hopes away and get the Apple Cup back.”