PULLMAN, Wash. — Mason Foster sat in the same locker room two years earlier, crying as Washington's seniors tried consoling the young sophomore despondent about the thought of going an entire season winless.
If there were any tears Saturday night, they were for revival.
"It's gone from being one of the lowest lows in my life to one of my highest highs in my life," Foster said. "Sitting here two years ago, crying my eyes out ... we pushed through it, and now we're sitting here celebrating."
On a frigid Saturday night on the Palouse, Washington (6-6, 5-4 Pac-10) celebrated its return to respectability. The Huskies 35-28 win over rival Washington State in the 103rd Apple Cup sent the Huskies to the postseason for the first time since 2002, capped by Jake Locker's 27-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse with 44 seconds left.
Their destination will be announced later Sunday and almost assuredly will be either the Holiday Bowl or Alamo Bowl.
But more importantly, the victory over the Cougars finally brought the Huskies full circle from two years ago when a 16-13 double overtime loss to Washington State was the bottom moment in Washington's 0-12 season.
"I wasn't proud at that time to wear the purple and gold. But now even when we do lose and when we win I'm the most proudest guy ever to wear the purple and the gold. I will wear it with my chest out everywhere I go," Washington safety Nate Williams said. "That just makes our senior class tougher here than the average athlete. Just experiencing the 0-12 year and making it through and now making it to a postseason game, it just adds to that level of mental toughness."
Washington hasn't been to a bowl game since the 2002 Sun Bowl when Rick Neuheisel was coach. Neuheisel's ugly divorced from the school followed that bowl trip and the Huskies won just 18 games over the next six seasons.
This season, it appeared Washington was bound to add another year to its bowl drought before making a dramatic closing charge with three straight wins.
There was the Thursday night slog past offensively inept UCLA, followed by the last second heroics at California when running back Chris Polk plunged in from the 1 on the final play of a 16-13 victory.
For pure theater, Saturday night could be the best, highlighted by Polk's 284 yards rushing, the second-highest total in Washington history.
"You can look at my call sheet on both sides. It says 'pound that rock.' We were going to make sure that we were going to run the football tonight. Chris did a great job," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "... He ran like a war daddy tonight, that's for sure."
The Huskies watched Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel pick apart their secondary and rally the Cougars in the fourth quarter. The improving sophomore scored on a 1-yard run with 8:46 left to get the Cougars within seven.
Minutes later, he had the student section at Martin Stadium bouncing.
Tuel hit Daniel Blackledge on completions of 32 and 26 yards to get inside the Washington 20. Two plays later, Tuel found Marquis Wilson for a 16-yard touchdown to pull even at 28 with 4:26 to go.
Like much of the night, Polk was the key on the final drive. Locker got Washington a little field position with a 10-yard first-down run that got the Huskies outside the 20. Polk immediately followed with his sixth run of 10 yards or more, a 36-yard dash to the Cougars 40.
After Sarkisian opted against a long field goal attempt on fourth-and-1, Polk ran the same play as the game-winning score against Cal, and burst for 15 yards.
Two plays later, Locker was jumping on Kearse's back after one of the biggest completions in his career.
The winning drive was the fourth time this season Washington has scored in the final minute or overtime to win. After the near misses of three late losses in 2009 that had Sarkisian preaching "finish" all offseason, the Huskies bowl trip proves they listened.
"I can't be more proud of this football team," Sarkisian said. "Two years ago Monday I met them for the first time. There wasn't a lot of school spirit, lots of heads down. We are proud Huskies, and we are proud to represent the University of Washington."
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