Jake Locker kept the ball on the option, accelerated into the open field and delivered a humbling hit on cornerback Prince Amukamara before jogging into the end zone at the end of his 25-yard touchdown run.
Two minutes into the second half, Washington was up by two scores on Nebraska, and it felt like old times. Like some grainy video from Washington’s bowling past.
This Holiday Bowl was a golden oldie from the Don James Signature Collection — a turn-back-the-clock night reminiscent of long-ago wins in Pasadena and Miami.
Washington hit harder and played smarter than Nebraska.
These Huskies looked like other Huskies — the Huskies of Warren Moon and Marques Tuiasosopo, Michael Jackson and Steve Emtman.
From the first hit of the game, Princeton Fuimaono’s crunching tackle on Nebraska’s Niles Paul on the opening kickoff, this game felt familiar to any fan who was watching Washington football in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, but very foreign to those who have suffered through the recent losing seasons.
This was a night for waking up the echoes, from Lincoln Kennedy to Olin Kreutz, from Tim Meamber to Dave Hoffmann.
And this 19-7 Holiday Bowl victory Thursday night over Nebraska was as significant as any postseason win in Huskies history.
On a chilly night in Southern California, this was the most definitive sign yet that Washington football is reclaiming its place in college football.
Fuimaono’s hit told Nebraska that Washington believed it belonged in a game this big against a team this good. It was a statement hit that said this Holiday Bowl in December was going to be much different from Nebraska’s 56-21 win over the Huskies three months ago in Seattle.
Washington, which completed its first winning season since 2002, played this game exactly the way a team that hasn’t been to the postseason in eight years should have played it. The Huskies had fun.
They played loose, played as if they had nothing to lose. They were fearless. They mixed razzle with dazzle. They threw their bodies at Nebraska as if they’d been waiting a decade to hit somebody this hard.
They turned Qualcomm Stadium into an amusement park.
They ran the wildcat formation with Jesse Callier taking direct snaps. They ran the pistol. They gained 16 yards on their first play from scrimmage, a pass from tailback Callier to wide-open quarterback Locker.
In the second quarter, they went for a fourth-and-one at the Nebraska 43. Chris Polk didn’t pick up the yard, but the play was an indication that Washington wasn’t afraid of Nebraska’s high-octane offense.
Sure enough, three plays later Huskies safety Nate Fellner intercepted Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez’s wobbly pass.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, they eschewed a chip-shot field goal on a fourth-and-goal at the 1. Again Polk was stopped, but it was coach Steve Sarkisian’s vote of confidence to his defense.
A safety three plays later rewarded Sarkisian’s belief in his team.
This win was a stark representation of just how far Washington’s football program has come since Sarkisian inherited an 0-12 team two seasons ago.
Considering how far down this program has been and considering how badly the Huskies were shellacked in September, Washington’s dominance of Nebraska was shocking.
The Huskies not only beat the Huskers, who looked disinterested and played undisciplined, they beat up the Huskers.
Linebacker Victor Aiyewa clocked Huskers running back Rex Burkhead, forcing a first-possession fumble that Alameda Ta’amu recovered and returned 14 yards to the Nebraska 21.
It took Washington three plays to score.
Cornerback Quinton Richardson ran down fleet-footed Martinez one play before Fellner’s interception.
And on Nebraska’s final possession of the first half, defensive end Hau’oli Jamora threw Roy Helu Jr. for a 1-yard loss, then sacked Martinez for a 13-yard loss.
In Washington’s early-season loss to Nebraska, the Huskies gave up big plays. Martinez’s 80-yard run that opened the second half. Helu Jr.’s 65-yard run and Alfonzo Dennard’s 31-yard pick-six on Locker.
In this rematch, they eliminated Nebraska’s big plays. They contained Martinez. They played virtually mistake-free.
They simply were better than Nebraska.
In prime time, in their first bowl appearance since 2002, Washington football was reborn.