Angry Jake took the field on Saturday night in the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was not Mr. Clean from Ferndale.
Two weeks ago he was awful against Nebraska. Locker shrunk while his brain betrayed him and shackled his gifts.
This Saturday he found himself in a verbal battle, of all things. Trojans defensive back Shareece Wright woofed at Locker throughout. Wright had initial reason for his braggadocio approach after tracking down Locker and punching the ball out of his hands. The play saved a touchdown. It’s also the type of deflation Washington would have crumbled from the past three years.
Not on Saturday. Locker continued to churn. When Wright thundered a hit into wide receiver Devin Aguilar, he barked at Locker while Aguilar was tended to. That was no surprise. Film showing Locker responding in kind — no telling if he will later send Wright an apology note — was.
Locker later discarded Wright with an open-field run. Wright countered with a knee to the head that dazed Locker at the goalline.
“Everybody sees the nice, sweet Jake. He’s always smiling,” Washington linebacker Cort Dennison said with a smile himself. “Obviously, he’s a great kid. A lot of times people don’t see that toughness that he has and that competitive nature that he has.
“When you ring his bell or press that wrong button, a different side of Jake is going to come out. It’s a side that a lot of teams probably don’t want to see. I hate when it happens in practice when we fire him up because that’s the new Jake. Comes out on the field and he’s hard to stop. Guys see that every day. But I’m glad a lot of the other people were exposed to it this weekend.”
But Saturday was Big Bad Jake. He lowered his shoulder for the first time this Saturday. He kept his composure when his receivers dropped pass after pass. Locker made a play that few others in the country could when he stepped up to zing an 18-yard throw while in midair to convert fourth-and-11 on the final drive. During the same march, he chose to keep the ball and run for a third-down conversion.
Locker banged, sprinted and willed his team through the daunting legacy of USC. The Trojans could not keep him from the edge, allowing Locker to run for 110 yards. It’s the first time Locker ran for more than 100 yards since Nov. 24, 2007, and more than he had the first three games combined.
He exhorted the field-goal unit after dragging Washington down the field at the end of the fourth quarter. A blue word even came through his lips.
There are times when one player is better than everyone else and the reason his team wins. That was the case Saturday. Locker was not deterred by drops, Wright’s mouth or wooziness he later said was just the wind knocked out of him (ahem).
He excelled during a night of grind, an evening when Sarkisian slimmed down the playbook allowing Locker to be himself. He is better on the move. He is better during plays that allow him to react. He is better when the coaching staff realizes he is not a malleable substance to be manufactured into Dan Marino via reps. He is made now. Locker, for better or worse, needs the foot frenzy.
He finished 24-for-40, throwing for 310 yards and a touchdown. Locker also ran 12 times to gain his 110 yards.
“No. 10, legendary,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Those are games were legends are made. I couldn’t be happier for a young man. … He showed us how big his heart was, for sure.”
Locker’s weekend wasn’t done. He spent a chunk of Sunday morning in a hat and jeans under a white tarp at Seattle’s Seward Park. A hand-written sign, “Jake Locker for Run of Hope,” hang over his head. He was back to Mr. Clean at a local 5K he’s associated with to raise money for pediatric brain tumor research.
Just like Saturday night, everyone wanted a piece of Locker. This time he was not running to avoid. The emcee pointed him out. He waved, runners in Huskies gear cheered.
Never has 2-2 felt like such vindication. The handle received a much-needed jiggle to stop the swirling. Saturday’s win by Washington, it’s first on the road in almost three years, alters all perceptions.
Maybe these guys can still get to a bowl game. Maybe they can beat UCLA, Arizona State and even Oregon State when the latter comes to Husky Stadium.
Those two games on the road — at Cal, at Washington State — to close the season? Those are doable.
Once again, anything is possible with Big Bad Jake at the helm. Just ask the mighty Trojans.