Happier days are here again

Washington showed the nation that they could not only go bowling again, they showed that their new coach and staff could motivate them to a big win against a heavily favored opponent. It is the type of win that reverberates into the off-season with good vibes. Washington manhandled Nebraska in the trenches. And they did it on the ground, behind a rushing attack that was filthy in the best way.

They rammed and battered the Cornhusker defense with a steady diet of Chris Polk between the tackles. His final four games of the season constituted a streak for the ages.

To wit, the offensive line opened holes for Polk that enabled him to rush for 138 yards on 26 carries against UCLA, 86 yards on 18 carries against Cal, 284 yards on 29 carries against WSU, and then 177 yards on 34 carries in the Holiday Bowl. That four-game total of 685 yards and 107 carries is very Corey Dillon-esque.

This brings me to the first of five things I will take away from the Holiday Bowl win, and the glow from UW's 2010 finishing stretch:
1) Washington has re-established the rushing game. That is something that comes with commitment, scheming, and recruiting. Steve Sarkisian did it wisely, saving Polk and his bruising rushing style for the end of the season instead of just handing the ball to him and wearing him down by the time the stretch run of the season came. It showed good foresight and attention to the bigger picture. The recruitment of seven offensive linemen in last year's class, and the reluctance to offer lesser talented linemen scholarships this season shows that the staff is committed to bring in kids that can help the program. Five of those seven linemen from the class of 2010 redshirted, which bodes extremely well for the future. That is why the Huskies didn't need to panic and offer scholarships to borderline recruits in 2011.

Chris Polk, should he return in 2011 (and Sark said this week he expects Polk to return), will undoubtedly be the featured offensive component. Sark will devise an offensive game plan that will once again allow him to get enough carries to put up big numbers but at the same time not wear down.

2) Washington's defensive line is beginning to realize its potential. Next to the offensive line over the past two seasons, the defensive line was probably the most maligned. It was manhandled at times, most notably by Nebraska earlier in the year, and by Stanford. They just did not compete in those two games. The break out of Alameda Ta'amu, as well as the sudden maturation of Sione Potoa'e and Hau'oli Jamora bode extremely well. Ta'amu seemed to be playing with a high pad level during the first part of the season but he turned it around in a big way. In the Holiday Bowl, he was a beast the Cornhuskers' line could not contain. When Talia Crichton went down to injury, Jamora was also incredible and showed he has improved playing in space. Before Semisi Tokolahi went down, he was also playing well enough to make 3.5 tackles for loss.

With Everrette Thompson getting stronger, Crichton back at full strength, red-shirt freshmen Andrew Hudson and Josh Shirley blossoming, and the addition of incoming freshman Danny Shelton, Aubrey Coleman and Taniela Tupou in 2011, there could be even more potential to be fulfilled. For the Holiday Bowl, Washington was missing three defensive linemen that had started games in 2010, yet they had an outstanding game. They helped limit Nebraska to 91 total yards rushing, the same team that rolled them for 383 yards earlier in the year. It speaks volumes to the talent development that Holt and his staff have done with this defensive line. Now the key will be to get them firing earlier in the season, and to keep improving the depth so injury will not be so costly.

3) Washington will need to recruit a punter and a place kicker in 2011. Both Erik Folk and Will Mahan will enter next year as seniors. Both have been consistent performers for the Huskies. Mahan averaged over 40 yards per punt in 2009 and was poised to have a big year before suffering a season-ending knee injury before the Syracuse game. He was replaced by Kiel Rasp, who filled in admirably for Mahan and proved to be a real anchor in the Huskies' special teams, but Mahan will be the one counted on by UW in 2011.

Folk, while only connecting on 13-20 this year, didn't miss a kick inside of 40 yards this year, hitting all nine attempts. He is extremely trustworthy, and although he only had two touchbacks, his kickoffs are accurate.

4) Washington coaches have changed the culture of losing in the program. Some like to point to the fact that Washington barely made the Holiday Bowl and were probably a little lucky to do so. My counter to that would be that you make your own luck. Washington won the USC and California games on the final plays of the game, they held off Oregon State in a do-or-die overtime down, and they fought off multiple shots to their own foot to rally and score in the final minute to beat WSU on the road. Teams that don't know how to win could not have done that. Teams that don't believe that they will win could not have pulled those off. Steve Sarkisian has his kids believing that they will win football games now, and ended the season as the Pac-10's third place team as a result.

I'm not sure people realize how bad it was under Tyrone Willingham in that regard. This is perhaps the biggest and most important change that has occurred in the past two years; Washington football now believes it will win games, and if it's close at the end, they believe even more.

5) Washington is now ready for the post-Jake Locker era. With the belief the kids have in the coaching staff, and with the recruitment of athletes that are not only more suited to the new system, but are also believers in Sark's philosophy, Washington is poised and prepared to enter 2011 with a quarterback other than No. 10. There are enough talented guys on the offensive roster to scheme around a punishing rushing attack and a controlled passing game. I believe the offense will move the chains with either Keith Price or Nick Montana behind center. Also, this coaching staff has two years of Pac-10 experience now. Sarkisian is entering his third year of being a head coach, and he has learned a great deal. He will be tougher to coach against in 2011 despite not having Jake Locker in his offensive huddle.

The guy that will be the most difficult to replace, in my eyes, is Mason Foster. There just is no way to say that your defense will be as good when you are losing one of the best football players in the country. This is where Nick Holt will need to get to work. Any new scheme must account for the fact that you no longer have No. 40 to pick up the slack, or make up for mistakes that other guys make on every play. Garret Gilliland, Victor Burnett, and Princeton Fuimaono are all good looking athletes, and incoming JC phenom Thomas Tutogi will vie to make the linebacking corps solid from the jump, so there is no reason to throw in the towel, but it might take a few games to get them to gel without the glue that Mason Foster provided game-in and game-out.

All in all, with those five take-aways from the last six weeks of UW football, I'm liking where this team is sitting as they head into the third season of the Steve Sarkisian era. I truly think that the best is yet to come. Sarkisian will only get better, and in saying that it follows that Washington will continue to turn the corner toward competing for conference titles in the near future.


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