Game versus Cal the key turning point

SEATTLE -- A young coach took over a battered, once-proud program. Scratch "once-proud" -- even after Washington went 0-12 in 2008, some 40,000 Huskies fans renewed their season tickets. Even with nothing to be proud about, this program remained proud.

Those season-ticket renewals coincided with the arrival of head coach Steve Sarkisian from USC, where he spent seven seasons on Pete Carroll's staff. Sarkisian is 37 years old, warm and not all that impressed with himself. Sarkisian knows how to work. He knows how to teach. And judging by his first two seasons at Washington, he knows how to inspire.

The Huskies went 5-7 in Sarkisian's first season, 7-6 in 2010. At other places, in other circumstances, Sarkisian would enter Year 3 with the fuse burning on his tenure. That's not happening here, not after the way Washington scraped its nose over the .500 line.

Washington started last season 3-6, which meant the Huskies had to win their last three games just to get to a bowl. They finished 4-0, complete with a Hollywood ending. In the third game of last season, Washington was humiliated by Nebraska 56-21. In the Holiday Bowl rematch with the Huskers -- cue the James Newton Howard heartstrings -- the Huskies exacted revenge.

"They kept looking past us," tailback Chris Polk said. "Basically, they [thought they] already had the game won."

Instead, the Huskies not only won, but won a physical, defensive game 19-7. That kind of victory typically propels a team through winter workouts and spring practice. But the Holiday Bowl isn't what propelled the Huskies through the offseason. By the time Washington arrived in San Diego, it already had gotten its bounce.

When the history of Sarkisian's tenure at Washington is written, the victory at California in the next-to-last game of the regular season will be the corner where the Huskies' fortunes turned. Washington, trailing 13-10, had the ball on the Bears' 1-yard-line with :02 to play. A field goal shorter than the length of an extra point -- in other words, as sure a thing as there is -- would send the game into overtime.

Washington hadn't started 3-6 by accident. Last season, the Huskies had so little talent that Sarkisian abandoned the passing game between the hash marks because he had neither a tight end nor a fullback whom he trusted. Opposing defenses knew that Jake Locker would throw only to his wideouts. Special teams suffered from an abundance of freshmen.

"I would say, if you lined us up toe-to-toe with our opponents last year, I felt like we had the roster advantage in two games," Sarkisian said. "We started two true freshmen offensive linemen and two true freshmen defensive linemen. That right there sets the stage. We played without a tight end. From a physical perspective, we just weren't there up front. We needed a mindset."

Sarkisian called a timeout and had the entire team -- offense and defense -- gather in a huddle. He explained to them why Washington wouldn't be kicking the field goal. He didn't tell them the part about not measuring up physically. Instead, Sarkisian explained to them who they were, whether they knew it or not.

"I expressed to them why we were going for it and what it represented," Sarkisian said. "More than just the score of the game, but who we are …. 'OK, this is our program. This is the way we play.' It was a very cool opportunity to get all that done in a short amount of time, and then it happened."

Washington came out in an unbalanced line. Polk went through the right side and into the end zone. The Huskies had their identity. They followed the victory with another last-minute win, this one against archrival Washington State in the Apple Cup. That one qualified them for a bowl.

"We went against the same Nebraska team three months earlier, and [this time we] were able to play toe-to-toe football with them," Sarkisian said. "And we didn't have to rely on gimmicks to play with them. We didn't run a bunch of trick plays. We didn't run a bunch of crazy blitzes to try to make things happen. We just played our game.

"To see our players' reaction, not just on field or in the locker room, but the next week and throughout the next month, and in offseason conditioning, I think that moment has really carried on for us," Sarkisian said. "I think that set the stage for Nebraska. We just didn't waver. This is who we are. This is how we're going to approach the Holiday Bowl. This is how we're going to play. I'd like to think the way we played against Nebraska is who we want to be, is who we are. But I go back to that Cal moment as the moment."

Most teams that lose an iconic quarterback spend the next nine months searching for their identity. Sarkisian will name either redshirt sophomore Keith Price or redshirt freshman Nick Montana as the replacement for Locker. But the pressure that will land on the new guy's shoulders won't land as heavily as it might have otherwise.

"After what we did in the Holiday Bowl, we knew we can beat a great football team," senior linebacker Cort Dennison said. "Why can't we play like that every week?"

This season, Locker is gone. But the Huskies have a couple of young tight ends. They have a young fullback. They have Polk, who rushed for 685 yards in the last four games. They have made kick coverage a priority this spring.

Washington is not the Washington that dominated the Pac-10 two decades ago. Two teams in the Pac-12 North, Oregon and Stanford, likely will start this season where they finished last season -- in the top five.

But Washington also is not the Washington that endured six consecutive losing seasons before 2010. On a campus where four cranes tower over Husky Stadium, they understand rebuilding. Work has commenced on a $250 million reconstruction that will force Washington to play its 2012 home games downtown at Qwest Field. The work on the stadium will have to hurry if it wants to catch up with the football team.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.