Huskies’ Polk runs into history book

SEATTLE — The University of Washington football team has produced several 1,000-yard running backs over the years, but that elite club has traditionally been reserved for upperclassmen only.

Until Saturday, that is.

In Washington’s 30-0 Apple Cup victory over Washington State at Husky Stadium, freshman Chris Polk rushed for 132 yards, giving him 1,019 for the season. He becomes just the 10th UW player in history to top 1,000 yards in a single season and the first to do it as a freshman.

“Getting 1,000 yards puts your name up there in the history books with other great running backs,” Polk said with a grin. “It’s a magic number. And the fact that I did it as a freshman makes it that much better.

“It’s real special,” he added. “And because I’m only a freshman, I still have three years to go.”

The previous UW freshman rushing record was set by Jake Locker, a quarterback, with 986 yards in 2007.

“I’m really proud of him,” said Locker, now a junior. “And he’s earned every yard of that. It’s fun to watch him run.”

What Polk has done this season “is unbelievable,” Locker said. “It’s the first time in school history that it’s been done (by a freshman), and there have been a lot of good backs that have played here. So for him to be able to have that label and that honor is a testament to how good a football player he is.”

Polk, like the Huskies collectively, started slowly on Saturday. He had just 33 yards on 11 carries in the first half, but things got better in the second half. He tacked on 36 yards in the third quarter, and then had 63 yards in the first 81/2 minutes of the final period as the Huskies broke the game open.

Leading 23-0 in the fourth quarter, Washington took over at its own 46 after a short WSU punt. Polk carried for 6 yards on the first play and then gained 13 yards on the second play, raising his season total to 1,005 yards. He carried the ball three more times and then went to the sideline, his day done.

“Being that this is a big rivalry in Washington, and going out there and shutting (the Cougars) out and getting 1,000 yards, and getting the Apple Cup back, it just feels really great,” he said. “I really don’t have words to describe it, but it just feels amazing.”

Polk’s 132 yards also gave him four straight games with 100 yards or more. That matches the third-best mark in school history, also achieved by Rashan Shehee in 1997. Greg Lewis has the team record with 10 straight over two seasons in 1989-90, while Corey Dillon had seven straight in 1996.

Polk’s success in 2009 is a big contrast to an abbreviated 2008 season. As a true freshman a year ago, he played in two games before injuries ended his season (giving him a redshirt year), and he finished with just 33 yards on 20 attempts.

“Last year was definitely an experience,” he said. “I’d never missed more than two games (in a season), so the fact that I missed the whole season … really took a toll on me. I really didn’t believe in myself. I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not as good as I used to be.’

“But I got some inspiration from my parents and my coaches to stick with it, and I’m glad I did.”

As a high school senior in Redlands, Calif., Polk was recruited heavily by nearby USC, including then-Trojans offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who is now Washington’s head coach.

“When we were recruiting him, I loved his style of play in high school,” Sarkisian said. “But for whatever reason, whether it was injuries or being young, he didn’t play that way last year for the first couple of games. But he showed some things in spring ball … and then in the first couple of games (this season) he really showed how he can play.”

And now, Sarkisian went on, “he’s got plenty of upside. He’s a guy that’s still learning. But the one thing he has is physical and mental toughness. When things aren’t always great, when things aren’t always blocked right, he fights through it. He doesn’t lose hope. He gets back in the huddle and he keeps battling.

“He hasn’t had a bunch of runs this year where there’s just been gaping holes and he’s still running for yards,” Sarkisian said. “So he’s earning his yards.”

Locker, himself a hard-nosed player, said he admires Polk’s determination and toughness.

“He never gives up,” Locker said. “He keeps running and finds ways to get tough yards.”

Polk can add to his 2009 total against California next week, and then he has three more seasons to take aim at some other prestigious UW marks, such as Dillon’s 1,695 rushing yards in 1996 and Napoleon Kaufman’s career record of 4,106 yards from 1991-94.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” Locker said. “There’s been a lot of good backs that have played here and put up unbelievable stats. But right now he’s younger (than they were) and he’s done everything that they hadn’t at this point. So I’m excited to see what the future brings for him.”

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