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November 26, 2010

Washington, Cal both trying to keep bowl hopes alive

For a game matching two teams with losing records, it doesn't get any bigger than this.

While the Washington Huskies' game at California Saturday might not register much more than a blip on the national radar, it means everything for the Huskies and Golden Bears.

"We know what's on the line," Huskies senior safety Nate Williams said, "and that really gives us motivation to go out there, try our hardest and bring our A-game. I think on Saturday, you're going to see a pretty good Husky team come out there and play."

Although the Huskies are trying to avoid fixating on it, any real hopes to remain in contention for a bowl game are at stake Saturday.

It's the same situation for Cal. If the Golden Bears (5-6) lose to the Huskies in their final regular season game, they will not have a chance to play in a bowl for the eighth consecutive year.

The Huskies (4-6) have to beat Cal, then win their last game at Washington State to become bowl eligible.

"We can't even focus on a bowl game right now," UW junior linebacker Cort Dennison said. "We just have to put all of our attention toward Cal. If we focus too much on a bowl game, it's going to get away from us and we can't get it back."

Washington's once proud football tradition has taken a beating in recent seasons. The Huskies haven't had a winning season or played in a bowl game since 2002 when the team went 7-6, which included a loss to Purdue in the Sun Bowl.

After the program hit bottom with a winless record in 2008, Steve Sarkisian replaced Tyrone Willingham[db] as head coach and lifted the Huskies to a 5-7 mark last season, prompting quarterback [db]Jake Locker to delay entering the NFL Draft and return for his senior season with aspirations for greater team success.

Although there is a miniscule chance a team with a 5-7 record could back into a bowl, six victories is the magic number for bowl eligibility.

And a sixth victory would give Locker a reward for his dedication to the program.

"One of the big reasons I came back was the opportunity to do that, to play in a bowl game and go hang out somewhere for a week with the team and do some fun things, whatever the bowl has for you and just enjoy that experience for a week and it obviously means a lot to me," Locker said.

Sarkisian considers a bowl game a reward for everyone dedicated to the Huskies' program.

"Let's not kid ourselves here," he said. "From the first standpoint of, from our seniors, who have had four to five years of adversity, to give them that opportunity, to be in a hotel room for Christmas and to be at a bowl game, and to get gifts and all those things that entails, I think it's important, one, for that. Two, I think it's important for our young guys, to continue to develop them, to get that extra practice time, and get them exposed to that. And then, three from a program's perspective, the natural growth is there. Whether or not that means we're getting better or not, I think it just feels that way. To play the 13th game would be great for our program's sake. And then lastly, for our fans, to give them that opportunity to travel to a bowl game to support their team, I think they would greatly appreciate that as well."

The Huskies enjoyed such season-ending rewards for decades until the program's recent slide.

Washington's 24-7 victory over UCLA last week kick-started belief that a bowl game could be possible.

But it'll have to be done on the road in November.

"But as the coach told us and I think it's very true," Locker said, "you can't win both without winning the first, so you can't get ahead of yourself and have to focus on what's in front of you - and that's the Cal Bears at this point."

Locker, who's been limited with a mending broken rib, is expected to make his second consecutive start against Cal after redshirt freshman Keith Price got the starting nod at Oregon.

The Huskies will face one of the Pacific-10 Conference's top defenses and take on a Golden Bears team motivated by more than just bowl implications.

Saturday's contest will be Cal's Senior Night and will be the final game played in historic Memorial Stadium before it undergoes extensive renovation that will move Bears home games to San Francisco's AT&T Park in 2011.

"We realize they're going to come out with everything they've got," Dennison said, "and we've just got to match their intensity."


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