SAN DIEGO — One era ends tonight.
The black-clad University of Washington football team is hoping another begins.
Before the Nebraska Cornhuskers can step into their future and begin play in the Big Ten Conference, they’ll face a once-storied UW program that has designs on making tonight’s game the first of many bowl appearances to come. The Huskies, wearing black jerseys for the second time this season, will make their long-overdue return to the postseason in tonight’s Holiday Bowl (7 p.m., ESPN). The first time Washington wore its black jerseys this season, the Huskies defeated UCLA 24-7.
UW (6-6) hasn’t played in a bowl game since 2002, and it’s been almost 11 years since the Huskies last won one.
“For (the Huskies) to go out and win this bowl game would just speak volumes of how far they’ve grown,” said Marques Tuiasosopo, a former UW quarterback who is currently the Huskies’ assistant strength coach.
Tuiasosopo was the star of the last UW win in a bowl game, when the 2000 Huskies capped off their memorable season with a 34-24 victory over Purdue in the Rose Bowl. Nearly 11 years and 120 games later, Washington is still looking for its next bowl victory.
And no one is as surprised as Tuiasosopo.
“I thought we would be fighting to Rose Bowls every year, or at least be in the hunt,” he said this week. “I never anticipated that it would be this long.”
Many of the current Huskies were barely old enough to remember UW’s last bowl victory, although there are some Seattle products who vaguely recall the celebration led by a quarterback named Tui-something.
“It was a big thing,” said junior defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu, a Seattle native who didn’t follow football back then but remembers the excitement surrounding that 2001 Rose Bowl game.
Partly because of UW’s decline after that Rose Bowl, many of this generation’s Huskies are still learning about the program’s history.
“I came (to UW) and I didn’t realize what a big thing Washington football had been,” Ta’amu said. “I didn’t even realize that the Rose Bowl is the granddaddy of them all. We’ve got to get back to that.”
While this year’s Huskies may have taken a step in that direction, they’re still a long way from competing for Rose Bowls and top-10 national rankings. The Huskies got outscored by an average of 31-22 during the regular season and lost four times by 30 points or more.
But at least the 2010 Huskies are still playing for one more day.
“People are excited to be back in a bowl game,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said during Wednesday’s Holiday Bowl luncheon. “They’re proud to be Huskies and proud to be back on this stage, playing football in December.”
For Nebraska, the Holiday Bowl invitation came with less celebration. The Cornhuskers (10-3) looked like a national title contender back in September, and they played in the Big 12 championship game earlier this month, and yet they’ll have to settle for a bowl-game rematch with a UW team they hammered 56-21 earlier this season.
“Everybody’s a little disappointed when you lose a championship game,” said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, whose Cornhuskers would probably be playing in the Fiesta Bowl had they won the Big 12 title, “but you move on, and you move forward.”
Nebraska wide receiver Niles Paul said earlier this week that the Cornhuskers won’t lack motivation because of what he called “non-stop” trash-talk by the Huskies in the first meeting, and on Tuesday Pelini tried to debunk the theory that his team might be less passionate about tonight’s game than it would another bowl.
“Our guys will be ready,” he said.
The Huskies should be ready, too, especially after the way the last meeting went. Nebraska’s 56-21 win didn’t sit well with the UW players.
“It’ll always be in our heads,” senior safety Nate Williams said. “We’re going to go out there and try to create a new memory of playing these guys, and hopefully it’s a good one.”
The schools are scheduled to meet again early next season. UW also will be in a new conference of sorts when the Pac-10 adds Colorado and Utah and becomes the Pac-12.
Before that happens, the Huskies would like to start a new era tonight with an end to their 11-year winless streak in bowl games.
“These kids have been through a lot,” Tuiasosopo said, “and to get a rematch with a team that we lost to early in the season, and to get a win, I would be extremely proud of them and proud to be part of a coaching staff that helped these kids believe in themselves and to see them bring Washington back to where it belongs — and that’s back to the top of the pack.”