If you’re a Huskies fan expecting coal in the stocking and want a trial run, go look at a tape of the first Nebraska/Washington game.
The 56-21 score is capsule enough to exemplify the decimation. What was viewed in the preseason as a game that could vault Washington turned out to be a butt-whipping that showcased season-long flaws.
With the Nebraska rematch just more than two weeks away on Dec. 30 in the Holiday Bowl, let’s take a look back and a look forward:
Vital issues for Washington from Sept. 18:
1. Locker locked on. We start with Washington quarterback Jake Locker not just because he was 4-for-20 in the first meeting, but because what he has or has not learned during the season will be displayed in the rematch. Locker threw two interceptions against Nebraska, the second returned for a touchdown. Each had a common thread: Locker never left his first receiver.
His first pick came on Washington’s opening drive. Three consecutive runs, one by Chris Polk, one by Cody Bruns, then two grunt yards from Locker, yielded a first down. Washington goes play action next, and it works. Except Locker goes to the wrong place with the ball. Washington lined up two wide receivers to the right, Jermaine Kearse by himself to Locker’s left, and Polk in the I with fullback Austin Sylvester in front of him. The play action sucked in one Nebraska defensive back, allowing Kearse a one-on-one. He stuck his right foot hard in the ground and burst toward the sideline. If the ball was delivered, Kearse was open for a 20-yard gain if not more.
Instead, Locker looked and threw down the middle into the remaining double coverage and was intercepted. Right call by head coach Steve Sarkisian, poorly executed throw and decision by Locker.
“I should have seen it and got off to my secondary reads,” Locker said at the time.
The second interception was a repeat. Locker stared at Devin Aguilar, threw toward Aguilar, then was intercepted by Nebraska’s Alfonzo Dennard for a touchdown.
Locker finished 4-for-20 for 71 yards, 45 of which came on one play to Kearse, with a touchdown and the two interceptions. No wonder Nebraska safety P.J. Smith told Nebraska reporters on Monday he was excited to see Locker again.
2. The running was real. Prior to the score altering the gameplan, Washington’s ability to run was legit. Locker and, in particular, running back Jesse Callier had their moments. Polk did the honest work in the middle. Washington’s third possession was proof:
During the drive, Callier gained 23 yards out of an empty backfield with two Washington receivers poised on each side of the ball. The formation spreads out Nebraska’s smaller people, which is the majority of its personnel. The Nebraska middle linebacker was caught peeking at Locker and waded inside. A nice kickout block by Washington right tackle Cody Habben provided Callier a plentiful hole. He hit it for the big gain.
Callier gained 11 more on the same possession. Washington’s three-wide receiver set and empty backfield allowed it to stick six on the line against Nebraska’s four-man front. Linemen scraping down and kicking forward allowed the strongside linebacker to be picked up. Again Callier burst through the hole to encounter the smaller second line of defense.
Nebraska didn’t bother to change its base approach all game. Four down linemen, at least five defensive backs, then two other hybrids, either linebackers or safety/cornerbacks.
That third Washington possession led to Locker’s rushing touchdown in 11 plays for 80 yards in 5:34. Ten of those plays were runs, nine by design.
“Really the way we match routes they have to figure out how to run the ball consistently or they’re not going to be able to move the ball,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said postgame.
Washington did that when the game was close.
3. Ragged edges. Nebraska was pleased with how often it kept Locker in the pocket, the pursuit of every team Washington opposes. The flip of that was shown by the Washington defense. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez ran for an 80-yard touchdown around a vacated left edge. Huskers running back Roy Helu Jr. ran for 65 yards around the open right edge. In each, a Washington linebacker had a piece of the runner at the line of scrimmage or behind. Both, reliable Mason Foster, and Washington’s tackle-for-loss leader Victor Aiyewa, failed to at least hold up the carrier. With Washington already cheating inside to defend the run, it was caught pants down each time.
What has changed:
Martinez not the same. The Nebraska quarterback hurt his ankle and was ineffective much of the second half of the season. Martinez averaged 147.4 yards rushing per game in the first five games of the season on his way to 12 rushing touchdowns. He has not scored a rushing touchdown since. He’s standard fare when kept inside the pocket (easier said than done) and may be without the team’s leader in receiving yards, Niles Paul, for the Holiday Bowl. Nebraska did not decide on a starting quarterback until the day of the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma.
Washington has developed an identity. The Huskies turned focus with the calendar, running the ball with fervor to close the season. Three weeks off for Locker’s ravaged ribs will make him a game-long running threat, something he has not been for weeks.
What’s at stake. Locker and Washington could finish with a winning season. Polk may display enough to consider leaving for the NFL. Sarkisian could have the spit-shined emblem proving the program is out of the box and up through the dirt. Nebraska? It blew a 17-0 lead in the Big 12 title game to be relegated to this low-meaning bowl against a opponent it already snuffed out. During the third week of the season, the Huskers were about the national title. Now they at least get some beach time.
Washington’s middle. Remember, Cort Dennison missed the first Nebraska game because of a concussion. True freshman Garret Gilliland started and was overmatched. Dennison calls Washington’s plays and understands keys better than anyone on the team. His presence is not worthy of a 35-point turnaround, but is a massive upgrade.
What needs to change for Washington:
Offensive gameplan. Nebraska is built to take away many of Sarkisian’s pet plays. Bubble screens, quick outs known as “sticks,” slants, those lateral angles do not work against the flood of Nebraska defensive backs. There are too many and they are too good. They want to press Washington receivers at the line, then vulture with help.
“It’s difficult to throw those things against us,” Pelini said.
Washington did bust a big a single big play in the game. Kearse’s double-move led to a 45-yard touchdown. Pelini admitted afterward that specific play was a concern to Nebraska heading into the game. Those strikes only work when a team can run and protect.
Defense needs to hang on. The Huskies’ defense lives in the bottom half of the Pac-10. That’s not going to change. The Huskers had four turnovers in the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma. If Washington’s defense can create half of that, since it’s at about half the level of the Sooners, the Huskies may have a shot. At the very least, the two-play drives for touchdowns need to cease.
Locker’s reads. For his sake, it would be ideal if the only staring done on Dec. 30 is by scouts. Nebraska’s pursuit was to take away the easy throws, make the gears in Locker’s head grind. He can alter the outcome and his draft stock by proving he learned the definitive lesson handed out in the first meeting.
This is one more chance for Locker and Sarkisian to show what they really are.