McGrath: Bowl games a unique experience for players, teams

College bowls are unique football events. Because teams wait as long as six or seven weeks to resume play, a bowl game is not unlike a season opener.

Only it’s not a season opener. Aside from the two semifinal teams advancing to the new playoff round and those pursuing careers in the pros, bowls are a last chance for many athletes to compete at the highest level.

Sprinkle in some bowl-week pageantry to help alleviate the melancholy — not to mention the motivation for teams to go out as winners — and you’ve got a football tradition like no other.

“It’s almost like the final home game at Husky Stadium for the seniors, when everybody wants to make sure we send them out the right way,” Washington defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said Saturday after the team wrapped up an indoor practice session at the Dempsey Center. “For a lot of them, this will be the last time they’ll ever put football pads on. I think that raises their level of play.

“There’s a finality: One game and it’s over,” continued Lake, a former defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs and Detroit Lions. “In the NFL playoffs, everybody’s trying to move on and make it to the Super Bowl. There’s no finality to it until the fourth quarter, and you know you’re losing.”

Another thing about bowl games: Coaches savor the chance to prepare for opponents they may never have faced — and may never face again. The Huskies, who’ll take on Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl on Jan. 2, haven’t played the Cowboys since 1985, when a Kansas high school kid named Barry Sanders was mulling offers from Emporia State and Tulsa before deciding to attend school in Stillwater.

“The neat thing about college football is the way every offense is really different,” said Lake. “In the NFL, week in and week out, it’s very similar. OSU provides a difficult challenge. They have three really good receivers, a running back who’s powerful and strong — they’ll try to force-feed him the ball — and a strong-armed quarterback.”

The Huskies don’t have much information on that guy, but then, nobody else does, either. Freshman Mason Rudolph replaced Daxx Garman late in the season and led the Cowboys to their first “Bedlam Bell” game victory over Oklahoma since 1991.

“Quarterback-wise, OSU is similar to WSU and Oregon State,” said Lake, referring to the Cougars’ Luke Falk and the Beavers’ Sean Mannion. “They can get the ball down the field. But scheme-wise, we haven’t seen anything like them. They mix it up from game to game. They spread it out against Kansas State and tightened things up against Oklahoma.

“We’ll do a lot of normal things we’ve done through the course of the year, and add some little tweaks to confuse them.”

The little tweaks won’t be polished until the Huskies return from their week-long Christmas break — another of those scheduling oddities that make bowls so quirky.

Lake, who has worked on the staffs of three bowl teams, offered three keys to success during the college football’s postseason.

“You’ve got to be able to tackle,” he said. “With this big long layoff we’ve had since playing competitive football — the Apple Cup seems like it was about 10 years ago — you’ve got to tackle well. You’ve also got to protect the ball, and your special teams have got to be on point.

“If we can do those three things well, we’ll be right there at the end.”

At the very end, win or lose, Lake hopes those Huskies without aspirations of continuing their careers as pros will be able to walk off the field in better shape than he did. A strong safety at Eastern Washington, Lake tore his meniscus during the second quarter of the Eagles’ 1998 Senior Day game in Cheney.

“It was pretty disheartening, a really tough deal,” he said. “Not the way you want to finish, for sure. But I’m fortunate to have been part of a lot of other football games as a coach.

“Besides,” Lake added with a smile, “I was too slow for the NFL anyway.”