There's no bowl on the line, no cup to be had. Just a football game to be won. And Washington coach Steve Sarkisian says that's all the motivation that should be needed for his team when it hosts California today at 3:30 p.m. at Husky Stadium in the season finale for UW.
"I think it's just big for us this year," Sarkisian said. "This is about us finishing the way we want to finish and playing the way we are capable of playing and to measure to see where we are at with one of the better teams in our conference." That the opponent is Cal, however, also allows for a one-year progress report for the Huskies. UW finished last season against the Bears, a 48-7 loss in Berkeley that wasn't really that close. It was a game that came two days after it was learned that Sarkisian would be hired as coach, but with Tyrone Willingham still on the sideline for one last day. "That game was weird," said receiver Jordan Polk. "Some people wanted to play, some people didn't want to play. We were just in a hard position. But it's different now." Indeed, UW is 4-7 in Sarkisian's first year, having shown demonstrable progress, including a 30-0 win in the Apple Cup last week.
But a surging Cal team, that comes in 8-3 and defeated Arizona and Stanford in its two most recent games, will provide a much more realistic sense than did the win over WSU of how much progress UW has made. The Bears are 5-3 in Pac-10 play and a win today will likely sew up a spot in the Sun Bowl. They will be without running back Jahvid Best, a preseason favorite for the Heisman Trophy who suffered a back injury and concussion when he landed hard in the end zone against Oregon State on Nov. 7. But sophomore Shane Vereen has stepped in for Best and rushed for 352 yards the past two games and Cal is playing as well as it has all year, having won five of its last six since back-to-back blowout losses to Oregon and USC. Sarkisian said this week of the Bears that he was "shocked they're only 8-3. You look at the film, they look like a top-10, if not a top-five football team. These guys are talented. They're athletic." The more veteran Bears want to wash away the memory of their last trip to Seattle in 2007, a 37-23 Huskies victory that marked a low point after being ranked as high as No. 2 in the country that season. "This is a huge game for us," said Cal quarterback Kevin Riley. "We definitely remember the last game up at Husky Stadium a couple of years ago. That was one of the worst feelings I've ever had. It just felt like the effort was down and some people didn't care. So we've got to be ready to play this game."
It could be the last game for UW quarterback Jake Locker, a junior who will consider leaving for the NFL draft, considered a first-round pick were he to declare. Locker, though, said he was focusing on the certain reality that it is the final college game for the team's 15 seniors.
"It'll be hard, emotional, definitely," he said of watching the seniors depart. "But it just makes this game and wanting to send them out the right way just that much more important."