University of Washington

Blackout blots out Big Red

Quarterback Jake Locker and linebacker Mason Foster are on their way to the NFL, and sophomore Chris Polk, a running back whose ability to both deliver and sustain punishment accelerates his football body clock, has every reason to consider joining them.

Without their two senior leaders – and, possibly, without Polk, the once underused threat who finished the season as offensive MVP of the Holiday Bowl – what can we expect the Washington Huskies to look like in 2011?

Expect more of those black uniforms. I wasn’t keen on the premise of exchanging the traditional combination of purple and gold for black jerseys and black pants, but if the idea is to wear uniforms that suggest a tough, no-frills attitude, well.

The idea works.

Before the Huskies put their new look on display in the home finale against UCLA, there was nothing about Steve Sarkisian’s team that qualified as an identity. The offense had some playmakers, but the plays that were made rarely translated into touchdown drives. The defense tried, for the most part, in a gallant but futile belief that sheer effort can compensate for a dearth of size, experience, and talent.

Then they stormed out of the Husky Stadium tunnel in their we-mean-business black uniforms to face the Bruins. Locker’s passing touch was as cold as the brisk wind – he threw for only 68 yards – and for the first time in his career, the subpar passing stats didn’t matter. Polk ran for 138 yards, a career-high that soon would be surpassed, times two. The defense, then ranked 118th of 120 major-college teams in stopping the run, stopped everything.

A victory at California, defined by Polk’s last-second, fourth-and-goal touchdown crash off right tackle – it spared the Huskies the hassle of taking things into overtime – was followed by another power-ball demonstration in the Apple Cup, with Polk asserting his strength behind a line whose confidence had become palpable.

Nine games into the season, this was an offense that wasn’t especially adept at anything. Without any commitment to a running game, realizing the untapped potential of Locker’s passing arm was Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.

And then the weather turned from mildly unpleasant to bitter and harsh, and the uniforms were adjusted from bright to dark , and the untapped potential of Locker’s passing arm became more a discussion for Mel Kiper’s Big Board than a recipe for a UW victory.

Nebraska, apparently, never got the cue of the Huskies’ transformation.

The Cornhuskers’ absence of urgency on Thursday night is easy to ridicule but even easier to understand: They had already beaten their Holiday Bowl opponent on the road, by 35 points – and the margin would’ve been 50 or 60 points had the visitors not taken their feet off the pedal midway through the third quarter.

A two-touchdown favorite, a San Diego bowl visitor for the second time in two years, a Holiday Bowl rematch with Washington was about as exotic to the ’Huskers as a motel marquee boasting free TV.

In other words, this was the ideal opponent: Apollo Creed leaning back in an office chair, speculating about endorsements, while Rocky Balboa was hitting a side of beef in the meat-packing plant.

Still, as disengaged and distracted and just plain bored as the Cornhuskers were, some fundamental execution was required to pull off the upset. The execution began with a philosophy.

“We just ran right at ’em,” said Polk, who carried 34 times for 177 yards. “We knew we could win if we ran the way we know how to run. They couldn’t stop it.”

As the Huskies’ offensive line took on a personality – as it seemed to take delight in the notion that the only play more rewarding than a first down on a third-and-2 is a first down on a fourth-and-1 – the defensive line’s evolvement suggested the attitude was contagious.

On Sept. 18, the UW defensive line took on the roll of spectators as Nebraska rolled up 383 rushing yards. In the rematch, the ’Huskers finished with 91.

Locker is able connect the dots. He understands the concept of team effort, and couldn’t care less that his paltry passing numbers against Nebraska – 5 of 16, for 56 yards – are unworthy of a presumptive first-round NFL draft choice.

Polk was a deserving a recipient of the Holiday Bowl’s offensive MVP award, but Locker belonged in the discussion.

Five completions for 56 yards? Obviously, it wasn’t the tour-de-force performance capable of vaulting Locker back into the top 10 of Kiper’s Big Board. But he ran for 83 yards and a touchdown, and committed no turnovers, and essentially embodied a tradition of tough-guy Huskies quarterbacks that began half a century ago with Bob Schloredt.

In the 1960 Rose Bowl, despite attempting all of seven passes, he won MVP after rushing for 81 yards in a 44-8 victory over Wisconsin. A year later, returning to the Rose Bowl, Schloredt went 2-for-4, for 16 yards, as the Huskies beat Minnesota. But he ran five times for 68 yards, and became the Rose Bowl’s first two-time MVP.

Like Schloredt, a College Football Hall of Famer, Locker’s legacy can’t be appreciated by numbers. Better to remember him as the quarterback whose lackluster team groped to find an identity with black jerseys and black pants in the middle of November, and turned into a brutal force of football efficiency by the end of December.