SAN DIEGO — Jake Locker was finally healthy, and the University of Washington was finally bowling, and the Huskies’ opponent looked like it would rather be fishing.
Mix it all together, and UW football found itself in a place it hadn’t been in nearly 11 years late Thursday night. The Huskies were finally holding up a trophy after a bowl game, having shocked a disinterested Nebraska team 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl.
“It’s about time,” senior defensive end De’Shon Matthews said after carrying the trophy around Qualcomm Stadium with an ear-to-ear grin late Thursday night. “We’ve worked too hard, and we finally got it done.”
It marked the first time since the Jan. 1, 2001, Rose Bowl that UW has won a bowl game. The win also capped off the season, and the career of Locker, with four consecutive wins.
“This is the experience I came back for,” said Locker, who put off the NFL riches this time last year for a chance to return to school for one more season.
Playing against the same Nebraska team that drilled UW 56-21 in September, the Huskies proved to have a much-improved defense and a better game plan this time out. UW still had trouble finding an answer for the Nebraska pass defense, so it took advantage of Locker’s clean bill of health on the way to 83 rushing yards from the senior quarterback.
Sophomore running back Chris Polk carried the load for most of the night, finishing with 177 rushing yards on a career-high 34 carries for his third 100-yard game in four weeks. The duo helped UW’s offense overcome another subpar passing performance while Nebraska’s defensive backs kept the Husky receivers from finding space.
That was one of the few units that played well for the Cornhuskers, whose last game was a loss in the Big 12 Championship game and left Nebraska out of the Bowl Championship Series and back in San Diego for the second year in a row.
It was evident from the time this matchup was announced that Nebraska was less than thrilled to be a part of any rematch. Ticket sales were markedly slow in the Cornhuskers’ home state, and the Nebraska players were so loose in the days before the game that they spent the good part of a Tuesday practice working on touchdown celebrations.
Thanks to UW’s improved defense, the Cornhuskers (10-4) didn’t get to unveil many Thursday night.
The Huskies (7-6) held Nebraska to 189 yards, 344 below the Cornhuskers’ total in the September game at UW. Quarterback Taylor Martinez was particularly ineffective, rushing for just 23 yards before limping off the field near the end of the third quarter.
UW jumped on Nebraska early, taking advantage of a Cornhuskers fumble on the opening drive. The Huskies completed a throw-back pass from Jesse Callier to Locker on their first offensive play, then scored on a Polk run two plays later for a 7-0 lead.
While the UW defense continued to keep Nebraska’s running game from breaking out, the Huskies added a field goal and — thanks to two Cornhuskers turnovers — led 10-7 at the half.
The momentum carried over into the early part of the third quarter, when Callier had a long return on the opening kickoff to spark a four-play, 53-yard touchdown drive that culminated in Locker’s 25-yard touchdown run. The senior bounced off two would-be tacklers at the 8-yard line before running into the end zone for a 17-7 lead.
The Huskies added a safety early in the fourth quarter, thanks to a holding call in the Nebraska end zone. That 19-7 lead left the run-happy Cornhuskers trying to pass their way back into the game behind backup quarterback Cody Green.
Nebraska had one long drive in the fourth quarter but came up empty after a Mason Foster sack on third down and an Adam Long pass breakup in the end zone ended that drive with 3:14 remaining. That put the final nail in the Cornhuskers’ coffin and capped off the greatest season-ending win for UW in more than a decade.
“It puts us back on the map,” Long said after the game. “It shows that we’re a team that has potential to be great for years.”
The Huskies were making their first bowl appearance since 2002, and they hadn’t won a postseason game since the Rose Bowl that followed the 2000 regular season.
Said cornerback Quinton Richardson, who was nursing a calf injury on the sideline while Long finished the game: “I think we showed the world that U-Dub Nation is back.”
For those seniors like Locker and Matthews who won’t be back, the career-capping win was a great way to go out.
“You really can’t even write a script like this,” senior safety Nate Williams said. “To be 3-6 and have to win your last three games just to even get here, then to get a rematch against a really good team and put it to them like they put it to us (in September), you can’t write that script. I’m almost at a loss for words.”
After celebrating with the trophy, Matthews was in a similar state.
“I’ve always dreamed it,” he said. “I never thought it would happen.”