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Huskies bring the swag back

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What a difference three months makes.

While Jake Locker and Chris Polk collect the accolades, it was the Washington defense that won the Holiday Bowl over Nebraska in a stunning role reversal from the September meeting between the two teams.

The numbers almost speak for themselves: In September, the Huskers racked up 533 total yards, including 383 on the ground, and had three 100-yard rushers. On Thursday, they totaled 189 yards, 91 of which came via the run, and didn't have a player break the 40-yard mark.

Defensive coordinator Nick Holt's defense looked every bit the heir to the fabled squads of the Don James era. They forced turnovers, pressured the quarterback, swarmed to the football and hit like Mack trucks.

As it always does, success started with the Huskies' much-maligned and injury-devastated defensive line. Junior Alameda Ta'amu repeatedly collapsed the pocket like a house of cards, and freshman Hau'oli Jamora was seemingly in the backfield as often as Taylor Martinez. Even junior Kalani Aldrich, forced into action because of injuries to the starters, got into the act with a huge tackle for loss in the second half.

It was shocking to see the UW defense display such passion, such power and such reckless abandon. How could this be the same defense that was shredded with such ease by Oregon, Arizona and Stanford?

Easy: The Huskies got their swagger back.

For the first time in years, they looked like a team that knew, without a doubt, that they belonged on the field with their opponents. They played fearlessly. They lined up man-to-man across from Nebraska and challenged the Big Red to beat them - and the Huskers couldn't do it.

Schematically, there were no huge changes from the regular season. In a towering testament to the coaching staff, the Huskies were just plain better than before.

"They were physical at the point of attack," head coach Steve Sarkisian said of his defense. "They held their gaps extremely well. Then we tackled."

The Huskies seemed to simply decide they were tired of being pushed around, tired of playing scared and tired of hoping to make the play instead of knowing they would make the play.

"We knew we could do it," senior Mason Foster said. "And we're sending this program in the right direction."

Now, as Foster discussed, comes the real challenge: carrying this newfound success into the future.

Although the Huskies will return with eight starters next season, their three losses will hurt as much as Ta'amu's body-slam of Martinez. Their two unquestioned leaders, Foster and fellow senior Nate Williams, as well as senior Victor Aiyewa, have played their last games in purple and gold (and black).

These departures cannot be overstated. It will be up to the team and the coaches to find new leaders and new tackling machines to fill the void.

But, after the performance against Nebraska, anything seems possible. Maybe Cort Dennison will become the UW's next All-American linebacker. Maybe the program can begin to reload, rather than rebuild. Maybe the cogs of a Husky resurgence to glory have already been set into motion, and maybe the loss of no single player can stop it.

Maybe the Huskies are back.

Reach columnist Kevin Dowd at sports@dailyuw.com.

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