Mason Foster (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)
The Washington Huskies need just three more wins to be eligible for their first bowl game in seven years. After putting up several good fights in one of the toughest first-half college football schedules in the country, many foresee Washington will get another chance to compete after their regular season finale Dec. 5 against California.
The fact that the Huskies are even mentioned in the same sentence as “bowl game” comes as a surprise after a winless 2008, but surprises seem to be one of many themes of the 2009 Husky Football season. Just minutes after a miraculous game-winning play by outside linebacker Mason Foster against Arizona Saturday night, he acknowledged their lofty goal.
“We always feel like we’re alive for a bowl game,” Foster said. “We just want to keep playing hard. This is another win and we’ve got Arizona State next week. It’s another week, it’s a great win, and we’ve got to get some more and keep playing hard and keep getting better.”
Head coach Steve Sarkisian was weary to recognize that bowl game hopes are in the thoughts of the team as they regrouped Monday, preferring to take the season opponent by opponent rather than look too far ahead.
“That's a long ways away,” Sarkisian said. “We've got to worry about Arizona State on the road. We haven't gotten a road victory yet this year.”
While it may be slightly premature for UW, the national media is looking ahead to bowl game season. ESPN predicts the Huskies will play in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22, meaning Washington would end the season fifth in the Pac 10. CBS Sports predicts the Huskies will head to the Texas Bowl as a replacement team. Others covering the Pac 10 and college football nationally have their own opinions for who will get the opportunity to play in a bowl game.
Those post-season hopes didn’t look promising for Washington for most of Saturday’s game. Special teams struggled, left guard Greg Christine went down with a broken leg, and plays were poorly executed on offense and defense. But battling for four quarters and capitalizing on opportunities eventually gave UW the edge, Sarkisian later said. Players credited their mantra of “expect to win”, along with a tough but inspirational coaching staff for getting them halfway toward their December dreams.
“Guys are starting to think, especially me, that the work that we put in is really starting to pay off,” said defensive tackle Cameron Elisara. “We’ve already won three more games than we won last year. 3-3 feels a lot better than the other side of the spectrum.”
Those three wins have brought a lot of confidence to a team that desperately needed a lift. After their performances on the field so far, the Dawgs believe they have to ability to stay competitive against the rest of the Pac 10 as conference play continues and a bowl game becomes more of a realistic expectation.
“I think confidence-wise we feel like we can play with anyone, whether it’s USC, LSU, or whoever it is in the country, Oregon or whoever,” wide receiver James Johnson said. “We’re a very confident team and as players, we believe in what the coaches are coaching us to do.”
Whether that confidence can translate into consistent execution on the field against some big opponents on the road will be the true test. The Dawgs need three more victories to ensure bowl eligibility, and players differ as to whether that’s a goal they think about as the weeks pass.
“Honestly game to game I’m not really thinking about a bowl game,” inside linebacker Donald Butler said. “Really I’m just thinking about the game and the next play.”
“That’s obviously a goal,” Johnson disagreed. “Definitely for me and for a lot of guys, especially our seniors. I think that they deserve that, especially after suffering such a bad season last year. Obviously that’s what our goal is, to get to a bowl game, but we don’t try to look ahead, we just take it week by week and just go from there.”
While injuries have been sustained by several Huskies, Jake Locker has remained relatively unscathed despite repeated matchups with exceptionally physical teams. A healthy Locker during the second half of the season will be crucial in collecting a few more wins. Locker, like his head coach, knows the key will be to take the path of the season one step at a time, whether it leads them to the post-season or not.
“I think the best way to achieve that goal is to approach the season like we have thus far, game to game,” Locker said. “As we’ve seen already, there’s a lot of good football teams and if you look passed anybody or look ahead of anybody, it’s going to bite you in the butt. We need to just focus on our next opponent and let the wins and losses take care of themselves.”