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Originally published November 17, 2010 at 7:01 PM | Page modified November 18, 2010 at 5:16 PM

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Motivation remains as Washington closes home season with UCLA

Once thought to be a highlight game for a national ESPN audience, Thursday night's "blackout" home finale between Washington and UCLA will be a survival of the fittest as both clubs try to earn bowl berths.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Thursday

UCLA @ Washington, 5 p.m., ESPN

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The bright lights of the ESPN cameras will stare down on Husky Stadium for a rare midweek game against UCLA Thursday night.

But the shine on this game has dimmed considerably from April, when the decision was made to change it from its original date of Nov. 13.

Then, Jake Locker was considered a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, UW regarded as an up-and-coming team, and ESPN figured it would latch on to the excitement of Locker's final home game as a Husky — as well as the intrigue of another return to Seattle by former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel.

UW, meanwhile, thought the move would be worth it to expose to the nation a program that was projected to finally be breaking out of the doldrums — and give one last boost to Locker's hoped-for Heisman hopes. To further make the night memorable, the school long ago decided to stage a "blackout" for the game, making special black uniforms for the players to wear, plans that finally were made public this week.

But as kickoff nears, the optimism of the preseason is a distant memory as Locker and the Huskies have mostly had a season to forget, the black jerseys the team scheduled to wear more emblematic of the mood of UW fans than anything else.

UW is 3-6, losing its last three by at least 30 points, and Locker has struggled to live up to the preseason hype due in part to a rash of injuries, including a broken rib that held him out of a loss at Oregon on Nov. 6.

And the Bruins haven't been much better with a 4-5 record that has some beginning to question the direction of Neuheisel's rebuilding project at UCLA, where he is 15-19 overall in his third season.

But for each, goals remain.

If either gets to six wins it will land a berth in one of the Pac-10's six contractual bowl slots. And for UW, that means taking each of its last three games, meaning this truly is now must-win time.

"We are very aware of the fact how important these last three games are to our season," UW coach Steve Sarkisian said this week. "But the fact of the matter is you can't win all three football games until you win the first one, and that's the task at hand. UCLA is a team that is in a very similar situation, is fighting the fight, and should make for a great Thursday night."

UW should get an emotional and tangible boost from the return of Locker, who was cleared to play on Tuesday after practicing all week. Neuheisel, though, professed not to be fooled by the seeming uncertainty over Locker's status this week, calling such reports "the biggest joke ever."

Neuheisel made a couple of such comments this week, the distance between his time at UW and the present appearing ever larger. Enough so that his return serves as a pretty minor subplot, particularly when compared to the attention it got when he made his first visit here in 2008, a 27-7 UCLA win.

"Having done it before, I imagine more water is under the bridge now and it will be a lesser impact than maybe it was the first time," Neuheisel said.

Intriguingly, it's Neuheisel's team that can ensure that UW's streak of not having made a bowl game since his tenure continues — UW last made a bowl game in 2002, Neuheisel's last year as coach.

UCLA, though, needs the win for its own personal reasons. A victory over Oregon State on Nov. 6 revived its bowl hopes and quarterback Richard Brehaut said "obviously that's in the back of our minds that we have to win two out of our next three to get to a bowl game. So we know it's a big game for both teams."

The bowl-game motivation is enough for UCLA that safety Rahim Moore told the Los Angeles Times this week that he would "probably quit football" if the Bruins don't qualify for one this season.

Neuheisel said he doubted Moore would follow through, saying "he's prone for the dramatic."

ESPN can't be faulted for being glad that at least something about this game is.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

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