Jake Locker got his signature moment and Washington back to a bowl game for the first time in eight years.
Locker made up for two critical turnovers early by throwing a 27-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse with 44 seconds left, and Washington became bowl eligible with a stirring 35-28 win over rival Washington State in the 103rd Apple Cup on Saturday night.
After the Huskies (6-6, 5-4 Pac-10) blew a 28-14 fourth-quarter lead, Locker led them on an 88-yard drive, capped by his fade-route pass to Kearse that beat Washington State cornerback Nolan Washington. It was the second time Locker and Kearse hooked up for a score, as the duo connected for a 66-yard TD on the third play of the second half.
Jeff Tuel’s final desperation pass fell into the hands of Washington safety Nate Fellner on the final play, leading to frozen, purple-clad fans pouring out of the Martin Stadium stands to dance on the Cougars’ logo at midfield as the Huskies players celebrated.
Angry Washington State fans threw water bottles and snowballs from the stands, and one small skirmish broke out, but no players were involved.
The real star of a frigid night on the Palouse was Washington running back Chris Polk.
Running powerfully and breaking tackles all night, Polk posted the second-best rushing game in Washington’s history, with a career-best 284 yards on 29 carries touchdown runs of 2 and 57 yards. Polk’s total trails only Hugh McElhenny’s 296 yards in 1950, also against Washington State.
Of BCS conference teams, only Baylor and Duke had longer droughts without a bowl game than the Huskies. Washington’s last postseason appearance came in 2002 with a trip to the Sun Bowl.
That long absence is over, with the Huskies likely headed to San Diego and the Holiday Bowl against an opponent from the Big 12. The bowl trip also serves as an another step in moving past an 0-12 campaign just two years ago, when Washington was the laughingstock of college football.
But the Cougars (2-10, 1-8) didn’t make it easy and in the process may have saved coach Paul Wulff’s job. His future has been in debate all season, but the continued competitiveness of the Cougars as the year progressed makes Wulff’s staying or going a difficult decision for athletic director Bill Moos.
Tuel threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns for the Cougars and did his best to engineer a rally after Polk’s 57-yard TD made the score 28-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Instead of rolling over after Polk’s back-breaking run, Tuel quickly led a 10-play scoring drive, capped by his 1-yard plunge on third-and-goal to get Washington State back within seven. The Cougars then held the Huskies’ offense to a three-and-out and took back possession at their 27 with 7:20 left.
Tuel went to work again. He hit Daniel Blackledge, who finished with seven catches for 132 yards, for gains of 32 and 26 yards to get inside the Washington 20. Tuel then hit Marquis Wilson on a 16-yard slant to tie the score at 28 all.
Washington started its winning drive at its 12. After Locker ran 10 yards for a first down, Polk bounced off a blocker, broke one tackle and went 36 yards to the Cougars 40 with under 3 minutes left.
Locker appeared to get a first down on a third-down quarterback draw but was stopped just short. Coach Steve Sarkisian initially sent out kicker Erik Folk for a 49-yard field goal attempt, but called a timeout and reconsidered.
The offense retook the field, and Polk, running the same play that provided the game-winning score on the final play last week at California, raced 15 yards to the Cougars 16.
Two plays later, Locker found Kearse for the winning TD. Locker finished 14 of 22 for 226 yards. He threw one interception in the end zone in the first half and fumbled on fourth-and-goal at the Cougars 1 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Locker also ran for a 7-yard touchdown and had a 77-yard TD run called back on a holding penalty.