UPDATED: January 3, 2011
SAN DIEGO - Amidst hugs from his family, high fives to the Husky faithful in the stands and celebrating with his teammates, Jake Locker stood at midfield, eyes watering, and a television camera in his face.
"It's the best way I could have gone out," the senior said.
For a Washington football team that sat at 3-6 in November after three consecutive gut-wrenching losses, Thursday night's Holiday Bowl win over No. 18 Nebraska capped off a four-game winning streak and was the best way this Washington football season could have ended.
Behind a UW defense that outmuscled, overpowered and simply overwhelmed the bigger and more experienced Cornhusker (10-4) offense, the Huskies (7-6) won their first bowl game since 2000, defeating Nebraska 19-7 and shocking almost all of the 57,921 at Qualcomm Stadium in the process.
Not many expected this one.
"Everyone was against us," senior Nate Williams said. "The ESPN reporters, they were disrespecting us. Nebraska was disrespecting us the whole week. I really think that motivated our team."
Those reporters and the Nebraska team might have had a reason to overlook the Huskies. After all, it was the Cornhuskers who came to Seattle just three months ago and pummeled the UW 56-21, outgaining the Huskies 533-246 in offensive yards.
But on a chilly December night in San Diego, this was a different UW team.
"We put together a plan for this ball game that we thought could be a formula for success," a proud UW head coach Steve Sarkisian said afterward. "The guys executed it beautifully."
That UW defense that held the Huskers to just 189 yards of offense? Beautiful might not be the best word.
More like mean. More like tough. More like bring-you-down-at-all-costs.
It showed from the very beginning. On Nebraska's ninth play from scrimmage, NU running back Rex Burkhead was smacked in the backfield by UW senior linebacker Victor Aiyewa - who had two forced fumbles Thursday - and the ball came loose. Junior Alameda Ta'amu snagged the pigskin and rumbled his way 14 yards to the Nebraska 21-yard line.
Three plays later, sophomore tailback Chris Polk, who had another impressive late-season performance with a game-high 177 yards on the ground, punched in a 3-yard touchdown as the Huskies took an early --- and surprising - 7-0 lead.
"The defense, to create the turnover and the offense, their ability to run and punch that thing in, just got the belief of everybody in the stadium that, okay, we're here, we got a great shot," Sarkisian said.
Nebraska had two straight three-and-outs from that point, as Erik Folk booted a 39-yard field goal at the end of the first quarter that put the Huskies up 10-0.
But the Cornhuskers wouldn't go down easily, freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez connecting with Kyler Reed for a 15-yard touchdown that brought Nebraska within three early in the second quarter.
Up until halftime, it was purely a defensive battle. The Huskies did what they did all game, putting pressure on Martinez, holding their gaps and preventing any big plays. There's no question they were prepared for one of the nation's top rushing attacks this time around.
"They were embarrassed the first time," UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. "It wasn't us, but we had to go out and prove it [tonight]. Our kids just battled. It just goes to show, when you run the play and you're prepared, you usually do OK."
Even with the UW defense playing its best game of the season, Locker and his offense had trouble extending their lead and putting Nebraska out of reach. NU cornerbacks were manhandling the UW wide receivers nearly every play, and no one could seem to get open.
Locker had a scary moment midway through the second quarter as he lay motionless on the field for two minutes. He later explained that his helmet was stuck over his eyes, and he couldn't see anything.
"It looked worse than it was," Locker said. "I was fine; I just couldn't tell my helmet was down over my eyes."
The senior couldn't see any open receivers, either, and he failed to complete a single pass in the first 30 minutes, finishing 0-for-6 in the air as the Huskies took a 10-7 lead into halftime.
But it was Locker and the UW offense that ended up delivering a huge punch to begin the second half.
As the smoke from the halftime fireworks show lingered on the field, the Huskies began at their own 47-yard line. On their third play from scrimmage, Locker finally completed something, a 25-yard touch pass right into the bread basket of senior D'Andre Goodwin along the UW sideline.
On the very next play, Locker finished the job on his own. He took the snap and scampered 25 yards to the right side of the end zone for his sixth rushing touchdown this season and extended the UW's lead to 17-7.
"To come out and bang, bang, bang, Jake makes a nice throw to D'Andre, then the touchdown run from 25 yards out really kept our team alive, kept our fans alive, and was a momentum-builder in the second half," Sarkisian said.
From that point, it was two things that cemented the UW's first bowl victory in 10 years: defense and Polk's legs. The Huskies didn't give up single point in the entire half, sacking Martinez twice and even forcing a safety that all but sealed it midway through the fourth quarter.
"The offense was moving the ball," said senior linebacker Mason Foster, who finished with a game-high 12 tackles and was named the game's defensive MVP. "We knew we had to stop them and we were going to win. That's what it came down to."
Many billed the battle at the line of scrimmage as a deciding factor, Nebraska's bigger offensive line the main reason for the 303 rushing yards given up by the UW back in September.
But for whatever reason, it was the UW frontline pushing around the Cornhusker linemen like they had something to prove.
"I thought they played better than us up front," NU head coach Bo Pelini said. "That's the bottom line."
Polk, meanwhile, kept his engine going. The sophomore was named the game's offensive MVP and finished the season with 1,465 yards on the ground, second-most in school history behind Corey Dillon's 1,695 in 1996. Against an NU defense that held him to just 55 rushing yards in September, Thursday night was Polk's turn to show the country what kind of a runner he has become.
"For the last month it's been typical," Sarkisian said of Polk's performance. "He's been a war daddy for us. Chris has a very physical brand of running the football. He's a guy that almost excels with contact as the game goes. He did it again tonight."
And as the final seconds ticked off the clock, what was once unfathomable became a reality: The Huskies upset Nebraska, finished third in the Pac-10, won their final four games - all must-wins - and capped off what has to be one of the better turnarounds in college football history.
Remember, it was only two years ago - yes, two years - when the Huskies did the unthinkable by going 0-12 in 2008 as the program hit rock bottom.
"I can't believe that like two years ago we were an 0-12 team," Polk said.
For many on this team, the fact that they were part of a historic turnaround is something they'll remember forever.
"Anybody can come to a program that's winning and keep winning," said Goodwin, who finished with 46 receptions on the year. "To start from the bottom and work your way up, it shows you have mental toughness and the will to win."
So how exactly did this UW team somehow bounce back from a three-game losing streak midway through the season when they were outscored 138-30 in three blowout losses to Arizona, Stanford and Oregon?
"Determination and team cohesion," said Aiyewa, who had three tackles for loss. "We wanted to make an experience that would last a lifetime and we had the players on the team to do that. We were able to come through, bear down and make things happen."
And for Locker, who turned away millions in the NFL to help the Huskies one final year, it was a near-perfect end to his up-and-down collegiate career. The senior may not have had the best passing day, but he willed his way to 83 yards on the ground, running with grit and determination all night.
The Huskies could have tanked midway through the season, but they didn't, and with Locker leading the way, this program has done a 180-degree turn. It was moments like Thursday night that make Locker's return such a great story.
"This is the experience I came back for," Locker said. "It's been some frustrating years, but to go out this way, to see this program off this way, I'm going to be their biggest fan from here on out. Every Saturday I'll be tuning in to watch the Huskies play. You can count on that. I'm proud to be a part of this program, part of this football team, something I'll be able to carry with me the rest of my life."
Reach Sports Editor Taylor Soper at email@example.com.