PASADENA, Calif. — If the University of Washington football team was going to go down, on this day, it was going to have to be like this.
Jermaine Kearse, in single coverage along the sideline, and a Jake Locker pass floating through the air.
Twice already Saturday afternoon, that combination resulted in jump-ball touchdowns. But now, with only a minute to play in a game that the Huskies trailed by a single point, the result was disastrous.
And so after UCLA freshman Sheldon Price was able to knock the ball away from Kearse’s grasp and into the arms of safety Rahim Moore a few yards away, UW’s afternoon — and season, for that matter — essentially came to an end. Moore’s interception with 54 seconds remaining helped UCLA escape with a 24-23 victory over the reeling Huskies.
“I saw single coverage with Jermaine, so I decided to give him a chance,” quarterback Jake Locker said of the fateful play that helped run UW’s road losing streak to 11 consecutive games. “And I threw it inside a little too much.”
It marked the fifth loss in six UW games since the Sept. 19 upset of USC. Once considered bowl contenders, the Huskies are now left to ponder what could have been.
“When you get so close, so many times, and you just can’t finish it, it’s disappointing for all of us,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said afterward, sounding as if he had been slapped by the reality of a season that’s already slipped away. “I honestly feel for our seniors — the Donald Butlers of the world, the Daniel Te’o-Nesheims, the guys that give us something back and are part of amazing transformation of a football culture.”
With three games to play in the 2009 season, this campaign is beginning to look all too familiar to UW fans. The Huskies (3-6 overall, 2-4 in the Pac-10) will finish at or below .500 for the seventh consecutive season.
“It stings for everybody, but it really stings for (the seniors) because, in their opinion, this is their moment,” Sarkisian said. “You always want guys to go out on a high. So, hopefully, we can do that for them the last three weeks and close this thing out for them the way we know we can.”
The elements that have brought back some excitement in the program were on hand again Saturday, only the rewards did not accompany them.
UW’s defense overcame a huge opponent’s yardage total (455, marking the sixth game in row in which an opponent has gone over 400) by forcing five turnovers, but the Huskies had only one touchdown and a pair of field goals to show for them.
The offense featured several playmakers, the most noticeable of which were Kearse (two touchdowns) and running back Chris Polk (132 yards on 15 carries).
And, in the end, the Huskies were involved in another nail-biting finish.
But the excitement of that win over USC less than two months ago has been replaced, for the most part, by the disappointment of watching opponents celebrate tight games. Of the past four losses, three have been decided in the final minute.
The hero of UW’s biggest win of the year was so despondent after Saturday’s game that he turned down an interview request. Kicker Erik Folk, who shanked a 38-yarder that would have given the Huskies a 26-24 lead with 10:41 remaining, politely responded “not today” when The Herald tried to stop him outside the locker room.
While that field goal could have been enough to push the Huskies over the top — and snap their 10-game road losing streak in the process — UW still had other chances to win the game.
After Mason Foster sacked UCLA’s backup quarterback to help force a punt with less than five minutes left on the clock, the UW offense started one of those long drives that helped put Locker on the national map against USC and Notre Dame.
Locker and the Huskies started at the UW 11, then drove all the way into UCLA territory after three consecutive completions and a key third-down conversion by Polk.
Staring at a second-and-4 from the Bruins’ 46-yard line, with about a minute to play on the clock, Locker dropped back and set his sights on Kearse about 15 yards downfield. The receiver already had won two jump balls in the end zone, resulting 17- and 34-yard touchdown receptions, and so Locker didn’t mind throwing at him in coverage.
Kearse and UCLA’s Price went up for the ball, only this time the pass bounced away and into the arms of a Bruins defender. After UCLA’s offense converted one first down, the Bruins were able to run out the clock and celebrate the end of a five-game losing streak.
The Huskies were left to think about another close game that bounced off their fingers.
“When he’s in single coverage,” Locker said, “I definitely would give him the advantage.”
Kearse, who would have had a first down in probable field goal range had he made the catch, shrugged off the missed opportunity as just that.
“You can’t blame Jake,” he said. “We scored twice on plays like that, and he just tried to give me another chance. Unfortunately, that chance didn’t go our way.”
Not many have for this team as of late.