PULLMAN – With 81 seconds remaining to play and the score tied Saturday in the Apple Cup, Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian made what appeared to be a most peculiar decision on a fourth down and 1 from the Cougars’ 31-yard line.
Renowned for his willingness to take chances and defy caution, Sarkisian – a week after renouncing a chip-shot field goal that would’ve guaranteed overtime at California – sent in kicker Erik Folk for a 48-yard attempt that was no gimme in freezing conditions.
And though a field goal would’ve given Washington a three-point lead on a night when they’d already surrendered a 14-point lead, settling for a kick as a conclusion to the last regular-season drive of Jake Locker’s career is not how the coach has wired the Huskies.
As the field-goal team assembled on the field at a pace that was almost leisurely, the play clock ticked down from three seconds, to two, to one, to a whistle that signified a Huskies’ time out.
It was then that Sarkisian eschewed the kick and committed to the sort of fourth-down gamble that has become his team’s identity in 2010.
Except, in hindsight, the fourth-down gamble wasn’t giving Chris Polk another carry. The fourth-gamble would have been the Huskies trying to win the Apple Cup without their spectacular sophomore running back contributing to the knockout punch.
On a play that recalled Polk’s last-second touchdown against Cal, Polk took a handoff from Locker and raced through a hole on the right side of the line. Polk got the first down, because he’s a force of sheer strength, and then he got 14 additional yards, because his power turns to grace in the open field.
Two snaps later, after backing up 15 yards because of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty – it was that kind of game for the Huskies – Locker completed the 27-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse that sealed both a 35-28 Apple Cup victory and a berth in a bowl game.
While there’s no way of knowing how much distance Folk would have been able to generate on his field-goal attempt, the way the Huskies won – declining a kick for the chance to sustain a season-defining drive – was as satisfying as the consequences.
“We were playing aggressive and the odds have been in our favor when we’ve been aggressive,” Sarkisian said after the Apple Cup trophy was presented to the UW. “We made a calculated, smart decision: You gotta be who your are.”
Amid the three-game winning streak that salvaged a 6-6 record from a 3-6 rut, the Huskies know themselves – and their coach – well enough to suspect the field-goal attempt was just a ruse.
“I haven’t talked to Coach about it yet,” said Locker, “but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he’d wanted to go for the first down all along.”
On the other sideline, Cougars coach Paul Wulff got a similar vibe.
“I was a little surprised they weren’t going to go for it because it was a long field goal,” Wulff said. “But when they called a time out, I knew they would come back out with their offense.”
Wulff also had to figure the pivotal fourth-down play would involve Polk, who ended up with 29 carries for 284 yards – the second-most prolific rushing performance in school history, behind only Hugh McElhenny’s 296 yards in the 1950 UW-WSU game.
“I knew, and we all knew,” Polk said, “I was going to get the (ball on) fourth down and take on their whole defense and not get stopped.”
Nothing against the leg of Erik Folk, whose consistency on high-percentage field goals gives his coaches a reason to remain calm during rivalry games as chaotic as this one. But the reason the Huskies qualified Saturday to continue their season – the reason they deserve to continue their season – was the belief they invested in their new-found identity.
A long kick to gain a three-point lead, or a Chris Polk run to a perpetuate a touchdown drive?
Sarkisian needed some time to think about it. A few seconds, maybe, before following the first fundamental rule of football.
You gotta be who you are. firstname.lastname@example.org