Reporting from San Diego
Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini lacked quality motivational material for Thursday’s Holiday Bowl against Washington at Qualcomm Stadium. Reality left him scraps. He’d need to stitch something together.
Unless, somehow, he liked that his team was playing in the same bowl and same city as last year, and that the opponent, Washington, was one it crushed by five touchdowns a few months ago.
But the Huskies, well, they had motivation to spare: revenge, winning their first Holiday Bowl in their fourth trip, achieving their first winning season since 2002, sending star quarterback Jake Locker off to the NFL on a high note.
And with more to play for, the Huskies played sharper, harder, and indeed more inspired, topping the Cornhuskers, 19-7, in an ugly game on a chilly night to avenge a 56-21 embarrassment on Sept. 18.
For Washington (7-6), the win came with defense and a strong rushing game headed by Locker, who finished an up-down college career five for 16 with 56 yards passing and 83 yards rushing and a touchdown to rebound from a four-for-20, two-interception performance in September’s loss.
“It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t perfect at times, but we found a way to win,” Locker said. “It’s the best way I could have gone out.”
It was miraculous that Locker even finished the game after a devastating second quarter helmet-to-helmet collision with Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy left him motionless.
But the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder returned on the next series, receiving a roar from the crowd of 57,921.
And he willed his team in the second half, rumbling through two Nebraska defenders — including Cassidy — to score from 25 yards out, giving Washington a 17-7 lead with 13 minutes 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
Washington, wearing black jerseys and swarming more than Nebraska’s vaunted “Blackshirt” defense, punctuated a dominant night when its pressure forced a holding penalty in the Nebraska end zone, resulting in a safety with 13:38 left in the game.
Nebraska (10-4), which beat Arizona, 33-0, in last year’s Holiday Bowl, received a bruising sendoff to the Big Ten Conference in its final game as a Big 12 Conference participant.
Star quarterback Taylor Martinez’s struggles in the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma carried over.
The “T-Magic” that led the Cornhuskers’ offense to 383 yards rushing and six rushing touchdowns at Seattle in September simply wasn’t there.
Aside from leading a 10-play, 74-yard scoring drive in the second quarter, the redshirt freshman wasn’t given much room to run by a swarming Huskies defense that harassed him all game. He finished seven for nine with 53 yards passing. He rushed for 23 yards.
The bowl win marks considerable improvement for the Huskies, who two seasons ago were 0-12 before former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian took over.
“It’s gigantic,” Sarkisian said. “I make these grand statements when I get hired about how it’s not going to take very long. It’s good to back it up.”