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Cut Polk slack, but there’s no defense for defense

SAN ANTONIO – This city once bore witness to one of the great defensive stands in American history.

That was a really long time ago.

So long, apparently, that everyone left in town has completely forgotten. But offense? Did we have a contest for you Thursday night: Second-most yardage surrendered in North American history (First: France, Louisiana Purchase).

The 2011 Alamo Bowl between Baylor and Washington was one never-ending touchdown drive, interrupted only by TV timeouts: Baylor 67, Washington 56; chain-gang members hospitalized due to exhaustion (3).

I would enjoy telling you the turning point in the game, but it’s like looking for a cookie in the ocean. But it must be said that, in a game that actually went to the pregame forecasts, there was one  unexpected moment that decided things:

A fumble by Washington running back Chris Polk.

He hadn’t done it all year.

“Great running backs don’t fumble on plays like that,” said one of the great backs in Washington history who probably played his final college game.  “I let my team down.”

He’s pretty much right. Ahead 42-31, Washington’s defense forced its only three-and-out of the evening, and received a 46-yard punt return from freshman Kasen Williams to start the drive on the Baylor 22-yard line. On the first play, Polk fumbled. Baylor recovered.

Baylor responded with an 89-yard touchdown run from under-appreciated running back Terrance Ganaway, the game’s most valuable offensive player (200 yards and five touchdowns on 21 carries). The game that was about to get away from the nine-point favorite from the Big 12 Conference swiftly came back. The momentum that Washington built in the first half with 28 consecutive points began to erode.

“College football is about momentum,” said Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian. “We really had some going. We were making them one-dimensional, making them throw the ball more than they wanted. We needed to make one or two plays and we couldn’t do it.”

They still had a chance, trailing 60-56 with under three minutes, but on fourth-and-8 on the Baylor 39-yard line, quarterback Keith Price threw perhaps his only bad pass of the night. His ball went high out of bounds on the sideline to a double-covered Williams. The 65,256 fans, 90 percent of whom were fans of Texas football, picked up their cowboy hats and began to re-whoop.

Amazingly, Price outplayed the Heisman Trophy winner, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Coming off knee injuries that hampered the second half of the Huskies’ regular season, Price had an astounding 437 yards passing (23 of 37) with four touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. He also ran for three touchdowns with 39 yards rushing.

Griffin was great, too – 295 yards on 24-of-33 passing – but was sacked four times, losing one fumble and forcing the play numerous times that didn’t work out.

“Keith was awesome tonight,” Sarkisian said. “I’ll have a hard time the rest of the bowl season seeing a better game from a quarterback. He had a great bounce in his step and threw the ball down the field with conviction. He showed his creativity, too. A tremendous performance. I couldn’t be prouder.”

He could have been happier, however, after racking up 620 yards of offense, to come away with a win. But Washington’s defense throughout the game, more than a single miscue by Polk or Price, simply wouldn’t let it happen.

They gave up 777 yards of total offense which, along with the points, were all-time Washington opponent records. Nobody expected much from this unit, especially since Baylor was averaging 571 yards even against some good defenses. But the helplessness at times was pitiful.

“We knew they would move the ball,” Sarkisian said.  “They’re good. But the frustrating part was the number of big plays that occurred. Part of that is their offense, part of it was our fatigue. But the amount of big plays was frustrating.”

Washington overcame a 21-point first-half deficit with 28 consecutive points. Ahead 42-31, Washington’s defense let Baylor score touchdowns on its final five possessions.

The avalanche renewed questions about the fate of defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who has done nothing to stifle criticism of  the worst defense in the bowl season. After multiple questions about Holt from one reporter, Sarkisian said, “You can keep asking me the same question. I’ve answered it three times: As a program collectively, I’m going to evaluate everything. I am concerned about some schemes for us offensively as well, and on special teams and on defense. We obviously need to improve. We’ll see if we can go with what we have, or we’ve got to go in a different direction.”

The press conference over, Sarkisian walked by the reporter, KJR radio’s Dave Mahler, and said, “Grow up.”

The teams combined to set the NCAA bowl record for points in regulation, exceeded only by a double-overtime GMAC Bowl in 2001 when Marshall beat East Carolina, 64-61. But  as wild and entertaining as it was, Sarkisian has the task of figuring out how to get his team to grow after losing a game in which the Huskies scored 56 points.

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