- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Washington wasn't consistent until the end of the season, but that three-game surge was enough to earn the program's first bowl berth since 2002.
The Huskies had high hopes during the preseason, particularly after quarterback Jake Locker opted to return for his senior year. But those took an immediate hit in the opener at BYU when Locker couldn't put together a decisive drive in a 23-17 defeat. The Huskies bounced back with a win against Syracuse, but that started a pattern of alternating strong performances in wins -- USC and Oregon State -- and poor ones in defeats -- Nebraska and Arizona State.
Then came the nadir: A three-blowout losing streak. The Huskies looked to be coming apart at the seams. For the first time, there was grumbling about second-year coach Steve Sarkisian, and Locker's disappointing season had become a national story because of his falling NFL draft status. The prime reason for the struggles, however, were poor play on the offensive line and terrible play on defense.
Yet the Huskies were able to regroup after a bye and decisively beat UCLA on a Thursday night ESPN game. Two thrilling road wins followed: A victory at California on a fourth-down touchdown on the game's last play and an Apple Cup win against Washington State on a late TD pass from Locker.
Those wins earned the Huskies a Holiday Bowl invitation. And a second shot, whether they want it or not, at Nebraska.
Offensive MVP: While running back Chris Polk and receiver Jermaine Kearse are legitimate possibilities here, Locker still accounted for 22 of the Huskies 32 touchdowns -- five rushing, 17 passing. He didn't have the season most expected -- he completed only 56.6 percent of his passes and threw nine interceptions -- but the Huskies certainly wouldn't have won six games without him.
Defensive MVP: This one is easy: Linebacker Mason Foster ranked first in the Pac-10 and second in the nation with 12.6 tackles per game. He also had 11 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He's a sure first-team All-Pac-10 performer and likely early-round NFL draft pick.
Turning point: After losing by 30, 41 and 37 from Oct. 23 to Nov. 6, the Huskies season could have spun into the toilet. Of course, Arizona, Stanford and Oregon were three good teams, but the Huskies didn't even look like they belonged on the field with them -- much like they looked against Nebraska. But they regrouped during a bye week. Sarkisian kept his locker room together, some weaknesses were addressed -- or hidden -- and the Huskies played consistently well on both sides of the ball down the stretch to earn bowl eligibility.
What’s next: The Huskies lose Locker and Foster but they have a number of key players coming back, and recruiting has been good under Sarkisian, who appears positioned to land another top-25 class. The first issue in 2011 will be replacing Locker, and backup Keith Price, who was solid in one start at Oregon when Locker was hurt, is the front-runner ahead of Nick Montana. The second and third issues are getting better on the offensive line and better on defense as a whole.